Mohave County "Downwinders" Fight for Recognition

Kingman, AZ – In the last 20 years the government has paid out nearly 700 million dollars to "downwinders" people who contracted cancer following their exposure to fallout from nuclear weapons tests. All of northern Arizona is included in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, except for the southern part of Mohave County which is the closest county to the Nevada test site. Now, the woman who has spearheaded the fight for recognition of the "downwinders" there has died from cancer. Arizona Public Radio's Daniel Kraker reports how her death has sparked one last push to add the county to the legislation.

Elenore Fanire was only 33 years old when she developed ovarian cancer. She was in her mid 50s when both her dad and younger brother died of cancer linked to radiation. She made it to 65, before she died last month of pancreatic cancer.

"She would say if she could tell you, don't cry for me, I'm in a better place, and damn those people in that government!"

Joe Hart grew up with Fanire, and spoke at her funeral in a packed Mormon church in Kingman. Nearly a decade ago Fanire founded the "Mohave Downwinders," to persuade Congress to add the part of Mohave County south of the Grand Canyon to the downwinders bill.

"We need to take it upon ourselves, each and every one of us, I'm going to issue this challenge to every one of you, let's not let Eleanor's life be in vain, let's get behind this downwinders' thing, and make these people pay for what they've done to residents of Mohave County."

AX3: "It's overwhelming that one town could be so inundated, and most of the people were from the same age group. It's not a coincidence."

On a tour of Kingman, Danielle Stephens says it's a matter of equity. Since downwinders in other places farther away from the test site are compensated by the federal government, she says they should be too.

"It's unjust, I would like somebody to own up to it, because I can't bring people back."

Stephens doesn't have cancer, but before meeting me she jotted down a list of family members who've died it. She counted 21 out of 25.

"This next house, my cousins lived there, the daughter passed away from a brain tumor, their sister passed away from a brain tumor..."

When Congress passed the downwinders bill 20 years ago, it never admitted that the nuclear tests caused specific cancers in downwinders. But Congress did agree to compensate them, and issue a formal apology. Though that's of little comfort to Danielle Stephens.

"It makes me fee l like they want to ignore us until our generation dies out and then they save all this money."

So why wasn't the southern part of Mohave County included in the first place? No one knows for sure, but ask just about anyone in Kingman, and they'll tell you it was because of bureaucratic bungling. In the original legislation, they say, the county was spelled with a "J," like the Mojave Desert in California, instead of an "H." Seriously? This all could be because of a typo??

"The reality is I just don't see any other explanation for it."

That's Trent Franks, the Republican Congressman who represents Mohave County.

"Because Mohave County is the closest county to that test site, it's right in the wind path, and ultimately the cancer rates are more dramatic in Mohave County that they were anywhere else."

Indeed cancer rates in Mohave County are the highest in the state. And the government itself has estimated that "downwinders" here were exposed to three times as much radioactive fallout as people in neighboring Yavapai County which is covered by the federal program.

The difficulty is it takes an act of Congress to revise the statute. Now, with Eleanor Fanire's death, and after several years of pressure from constituents Franks says he plans to introduce a bill to add the southern part of Mohave County to the "downwinders" legislation. That would be welcome news to Helen Graves.

"Here's all these needy people, and so many have died, when they could have helped their lives, it's a big disappointment, that it just goes on and on, and no one does anything."

The 81 year old post office worker has devoted her life to helping people in Kingman with cancer, ever since she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in her early 20s.

With tears streaming down her cheeks, Graves says she's been to more funerals than she can count in Mohave County. So many, that she's stopped going. She didn't even go to Elenore Fanire's. But she hopes her death may finally lead to "downwinders" here getting recognition from the federal government.