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Nuclear tests in South Mississippi cost government millions in claims

SUN HERALD FILE/1989Signs posted by the Salt Dome Hunting Club warn against entry to the nuclear test site southwest of Hattiesburg. It's been more than 50 years since the U.S. government exploded two nuclear bombs at the site.
SUN HERALD FILE/1989Signs posted by the Salt Dome Hunting Club warn against entry to the nuclear test site southwest of Hattiesburg. It's been more than 50 years since the U.S. government exploded two nuclear bombs at the site.

The Department of Labor has paid almost $5.5 million to people who are suffering medical problems after working at the Salmon Nuclear Explosion Site southwest of Hattiesburg.

Combined with money paid to workers who lived in Mississippi but didn't necessarily work on the Salmon site, the total is $16.8 million. A total of 56 claims came from the Salmon site, commonly known as the Tatum Salt Dome.

The medical claims were from workers exposed to radiation and other toxic substances at the site from 1964 through June 29, 1972, said Amanda McClure of the Department of Labor's Office of Public Affairs. The money came from the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.

"Former DOE federal workers and DOE contractors and subcontractors who were diagnosed with cancer and whose cancer was caused by exposure to radiation while working at the Salmon Nuclear Explosion Site during the covered time period are eligible for lump-sum compensation and medical benefits," she said in an email.

In addition, she said, employees with beryllium disease or silicosis may be eligible as well as survivors of qualified workers.

The purpose of the Mississippi test was to find out if the Soviets could cheat on the test-ban treaty without the United States knowing it. To do that, the federal government exploded two nuclear bombs -- the first a 5.2-kiloton (of TNT) device and the second a 380-ton device -- 2,660 feet below the surface of the Earth. (For comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was up to 18 kilotons.)

"You ever seen a rock thrown in a puddle? The way the ripples come out away from it? Can you imagine that in 3-foot-high dirt?" Tom Breshears, who as a child lived with his parents near Baxterville during the 1964 test, told the Student Printz at USM last year for a story on the 50th anniversary of the test.

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But the $5.5 million in claims wasn't the only cost to the federal government.

Four hundred residents were evacuated before the blast and paid $10 per adult and $5 per child for the inconvenience. More than 400 people later filed claims for damage to their properties.

Shortly after the blast, scientists drilled down into the dome to lower instruments into it, and the drill bit brought contaminated soil to the surface. The mistake was repeated in 1966. Several cleanup attempts were made.

The buildings were razed and sent to the Nevada Test Site in 1972. A monument at the site warns people not to drill or dig.

In 1979, about 15 families were evacuated, some in the middle of the night, after scientists believed they had found deformed and radioactive wildlife in the area. That radioactivity later was attributed to contaminated lab equipment used to test the wildlife.

In the 1990s, scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy drilled 55 wells near the site to test the water. The DOE also spent $1.9 million for a water system so residents wouldn't have to use well water.

In 2010, the federal government declared the site safe and transferred 1,500 acres to the state. The timber alone was worth $2 million and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said there are also recreational opportunities there. The state Health Department as late as 2013 was monitoring the site and nearby water for tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. The Energy department still monitors the groundwater and surface water there.

Gov. Phil Bryant and former Gov. Haley Barbour as late as a couple years ago continued to pitch salt domes as safe places to store nuclear waste. A flurry of Letters to the Editor and editorials in the Sun Herald followed opposing the idea, first floated -- without success -- in the 1980s.

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