Who Nuked Mississippi? - Part Two

"The Old Mill. I've had it about 12 years here probably," said Willie Ray Burge, as he talked with visitors at his country store.

The business is located along Purvis to Columbia Road. It's a step back in time; where antiques abound and visitors find produce on the porch.

"Well, I grind a little corn meal for the public. And I sell mill here. Grist. Corn flour. And I try to grow me some corn to grind," he said.

His business and home place are closer than most to ground zero.

"I'd say a mile, mile and a quarter. Through the woods," says Burge.

The longtime resident remembers he and his family were evacuated prior to each underground nuclear explosion. The blast caused scattered damage to area homes.

Nearly a thousand damage claims were filed with the Atomic Energy Commission in the months following the testing. There were also water worries, folks concerned about their wells.

"Yeah, we got worried about it. But it checked out all right later. Mama had a problem with her well. She had a well and it went bad and she had another one put down. They found something in it and they came back and drilled her another one. Moved over further from that one," Burge recalled.

"I've always been one to tackle the impossible. I'm very aggressive about things," said former Lamar County supervisor William Bishop.

He was a two term supervisor who represented those folks living closest to ground zero. He lobbied for and eventually won federal funding for a new water system to alleviate concerns about tainted wells.

"The people in the Salmon salt dome area were concerned about their drinking water supplies and most of them had their own water wells," he said.

Bishop says about 125 families living closest to ground zero needed the pipeline water project.

Testing of the ground water in the area continues today, nearly 44 years after the first test blast. Some high levels of radioactive tritium have been found nearest the test site, but none in sources of potable drinking water.

"You have an element of people that will never be convinced that the ground water etc. is not contaminated. You have some that's always going to think it's contaminated," said Bishop.

Some folks around Baxterville shared those worries. Especially in the months immediately following the underground blasts.

Lionell Lowe recalls those concerns about tainted wells.

"Yeah, everybody did," said the 81-year-old.

Lowe's own well was among the many tested by the government. It tested fine.

"We ain't never had no water problem at all. But people back around over there did. That was pretty close to that thing. A lot of them had problems with the water," he says.

The nuclear testing has sparked plenty of stories over the years, some true and some partly true. Like in 1979 when the governor ordered an evacuation of this area after Ole Miss professors discovered a radioactive frog near the salt dome. Well, that's partly true, but you don't always hear the rest of the story. A few days later, those Ole Miss professors discovered their own contaminated equipment had caused a false reading. There was no radioactive frog after all.

"There's been rumors that they have some frogs with 20 or 30 toes on each foot. And there's been some cats, house cats that came up with six or eight toes on their feet too. But I'm not sure that had anything to do with that," said Bishop.

More serious are the often unspoken worries that the decades-old underground testing may have caused a bump in cancer deaths.

"We've had a lot of cancer in this area out here," said Willie Ray Burge.

He's not sure whether those deaths are related to the nuclear testing.

"I don't know. My mama died from cancer," said the store owner.

No long term health studies have been done to substantiate a link between the nuclear testing and area cancer rates. And despite ongoing environmental testing around ground zero, not everyone believes the impact was minimal.

"There was never any final results showing any contamination of the radioactive substance known as tritium. There were some minute traces out in the immediate area, where they did the big bomb, but not in people's water. But that still didn't alleviate the fears that perhaps someday it might seep into the water system. So, that was our concern," said William Bishop.

Today, the Lamar County nuclear test site is under the Department of Energy's Legacy Management program.  The government still owns the more than one thousand acre site.

State and federal testing is still conducted each year, primarily on the environment.