In May, 1955, the U.S. Navy participated in a test of a nuclear depth charge 500 miles off the coast of San Diego.
The explosion was powerful enough that a merchant ship leaving San Francisco Bay, hundreds of miles to the north, turned around to render aid in what the captain thought was an earthquake.
Somewhere in a file cabinet in my house is a thick photocopied version of the Operation Wigwam test report that includes a statement that the sensor badges the sailors wore showed that they did not receive significant amounts of atomic radiation as the Pacific Ocean spewed nuclear water into the air.
Thirty years later, my dad died from fast-growing cancers that we attributed at the time to lifestyle choices.
But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, my family started making inquires about the Wigwam test at about the same time the U.S. government started listing it among the tests where atomic veterans might be eligible for compensation.
With this as a possible cause for my father’s cancers, we applied for benefits for my mom, were denied, appealed, were denied again and moved on.
I created a website for helping others go through the benefit application process and received a lot of email from families who had similar stories of husbands and fathers who witnessed the Wigwam test and ended up with multiple cancers.
In the early 2000s, the Veterans Administration contacted my mom and told here to apply again.
She filled out a relatively simple version of the paperwork and received survivor benefits for the rest of her life. When she passed away, we discovered that we were a Gold Star family – and I haven’t looked at Memorial Day the same since.
I was reminded of my family history reading Jonathan Romeo’s story (“Uranium dumpsite south of Durango leaching into groundwater,” Aug. 28).
The part of the article that first got my attention was the Department of Energy saying the uranium in a groundwater table “does not pose a risk to human health or the environment.”
It sounded like the 1950s reports I read about the Wigwam test not dosing the sailors with radiation.
I was heartened that the DOE is examining the potential uranium leakage problem and my experience is that sooner or later the government will do the right thing.
But my experience also tells me to get to the right thing – making sure radioactivity does not leak into water sources for people, fish or fowl – will take pressure from the media, public and elected officials to move the studies of the contamination and mitigation along sooner rather than the 45 years it took for some of our atomic veterans to get acknowledgment that the radiation was present and had an effect on them.
We need to follow the progress the DOE is making and call out when it is not working to make progress, and to ensure it is moving the reviews and mitigations along in a timely manner.
Also, we need to help folks become aware of Durango’s nuclear past.
This awareness doesn’t need to make people fearful about being in this area, certainly not so much that we get fire-bombings at the disposal site.
A lot of people have moved here since the work to decontaminate the area was completed in the 1990s, and many other people have forgotten. Our residents need to be aware about what stuff used to be where the dog park sits, and to be able to ask relevant questions about the materials used for construction of homes and other buildings they may purchase.
Mick Souder is a member of the Durango 9R School Board. He lives in Durango.