Nukewatch Quarterly Spring 2022
By Kelly Lundeen
A second lawsuit has been filed on behalf of atomic veterans exposed to radiation during cleanup efforts after the 1966 nuclear weapons accident in Palomares, Spain. Last November, Edward P. Feeley filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. If successful, his administrative appeal for class action status would be the first in history before the Board of Veterans Appeals. The Feeley case follows on the heels of another major 2019 lawsuit over grievances of surviving Palomares veterans, Skaar vs. McDonough, in which the vets were granted class status by another body, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The Feeley class of U.S. veterans has asked for the cleanup work conducted by about 1,600 service members at Palomares to be categorized as a “radiation-risk” activity, allowing them to have their radiation-related illnesses recognized as such in order to receive medical care and compensation.
When Feeley originally approached the VA for medical treatment of his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and skin cancer, he was denied. Yet, the radiation exposure levels by U.S. vets at Palomares are higher than the levels at many other already-recognized radiation-risk incidents. Vets with the same radiation-related illnesses from other contamination events qualify for medical treatment, including those who disposed of the same Palomares debris after it was shipped to the U.S.
“My fellow veterans and I spent weeks at Palomares shoveling nuclear waste without gloves or masks. We ate there and slept there,” said Feeley in a press release from the Veterans Legal Services Clinic of Yale Law School, which is handling the appeal. “At the end of the day, we would be covered in a white powder — which I later learned was radioactive debris. I was only 20 years old when I arrived at Palomares, and I’m 76 now. Most of the men I served with are older than me. Many of them have passed away since that time and the ones that are still alive deserve to have their service rewarded,” Feeley said.
The radioactive debris they were cleaning up was from the first U.S. nuclear weapons accident. Twenty-two pounds of highly toxic plutonium was scattered over 500 acres around Palomares, on the Mediterranean coast, after a B-52 bomber carrying four 1.5 megaton nuclear warheads crashed with its refueling tanker nearly six miles in the air. Even though there was no nuclear detonation, the seven service members aboard the planes were killed.
The intensive initial cleanup operation lasted months, but the service members, the local population, the Earth, and the sea were contaminated and are still suffering to this day. In 2015, the Obama administration agreed to clean up an additional 1.8 million cubic feet of contaminated soil in Palomares, but the Trump White House claimed to have no obligation to keep promises made by prior administrations, and Biden has failed to recommit the U.S. to its responsibility for cleanup.
The 2019 case, Skaar vs. McDonough, alleges that the military used inadequate radiation data and flawed recording methods in order to deny medical benefits to the vets (see Nukewatch Spring Quarterly, “Court Orders Veterans Affairs Department to Replace Flawed Science Used to Deny Benefits to Vets Poisoned in Plutonium Disaster”). This case is scheduled for oral arguments April 7, 2022.
Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, the Palomares Veterans Act in the Senate and the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act in the House of Representatives, which would compensate the veterans for their dangerous and sometimes deadly work, await approval.