Veterans Responsible for Cleanup of 1966 Nuclear Incident Dealt Blow By US Supreme Court

Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images

A blow has been dealt against the group of veterans behind a class-action suit aimed at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The group, led by US Air Force veteran Victor Skaar, claim they’ve suffered illness that resulted from the cleanup efforts following the Palomares Incident in January 1966.

Burned-out remains of a Boeing B-52G Stratofortress in a field
Burned-out wreckage of the Boeing B-52G Stratofortress involved in the Palomares Incident, 1966. (Photo Credit: Europa Press / Picture Alliance / Getty Images)

The Palomares Incident occurred on January 17, 1966. While refueling over the Mediterranean, off the coast of Spain, a Boeing B-52G Stratofortress collided with a KC-135 Stratotanker. The fuel carried by the latter ignited, while the strategic bomber broke apart mid-air. Of the 11 crewmen aboard both aircraft, seven perished.

Following the collision, the B-52G’s pilot, Maj. Larry G. Messinger, said:

“We came in behind the tanker, and we were a little bit fast, and we started to overrun him a little bit. There is a procedure they have in refueling where if the boom operator feels that you’re getting too close and it’s a dangerous situation, he will call, ‘Break away, break away, break away.’ There was no call for a break away, so we didn’t see anything dangerous about the situation. But all of a sudden, all hell seemed to break loose.”

To make matters worse, the bomber was carrying four B28FI Mod 2 YI thermonuclear bombs as part of Operation Chrome Dome. Three were located near the fishing village of Palomares, while the fourth was later found in the depths of the Mediterranean. The non-nuclear explosives in two detonated upon impact with the ground, causing a 0.77-square-mile radius near Palomares to become contaminated with plutonium. This resulted in the collision being dubbed the “worst radiation accident in US history.”

US airmen walking through a field
US airmen searching for the missing hydrogen bombs following the Palomares Incident, 1966. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

A mass cleanup effort occurred following the Palomares Incident, with an estimated 1,600 US servicemen (the majority of them low-ranking and equipped with little-to-no protective gear) sent to Spain to clean up the contaminated soil. Many were exposed to radiation, which caused them to develop health issues later on in life.

The US military played down the incident to the public. On top of this, not all of the dirt was cleaned up and shipped back to the United States. In March 2023, Spain’s government asked the US to begin removing all contaminated soil from the site, eight years after the two countries signed a statement of intent to negotiate the restoration of Palomares. No agreement was ever enacted.

Among those involved in the initial cleanup efforts was retired Chief Master Sgt. Victor Skaar, who filed the class-action claim against the Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of himself and other veterans. He has since developed Leukopenia, which can be caused by exposure to radiation, and skin cancer, which is currently in remission.

The veteran believes both conditions are a direct result of his deployment to Spain. The Air Force, on the other hand, has stated that those involved in the cleanup weren’t exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

Chainlink fence with a sign warning that the area is restricted
Cordoned-off site where the Palomares Incident occurred, 2023. (Photo Credit: Rafael Gonzalez / Europa Press / Getty Images)

Skaar is seeking disability payments for those who became ill as a result of the Palomares Incident. His lawsuit has been before the courts for years, with students from Yale Law School becoming involved in 2020.

A federal appeals court has rejected his claims, with the US Supreme Court opting to leave the ruling in place. The Department of Justice has noted Congress enacted legislation in 2022 that expands benefits eligibility for veterans involved in the 1966 incident, while also acknowledging Skaar isn’t covered under the current framing.

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At present, Skaar hasn’t publicly commented on the Supreme Court’s decision.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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