NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – New Mexico’s attorney general is among those asking Congress to help New Mexico’s Downwinders by passing amendments to the federal Radioactive Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). If passed, the bill would offer financial compensation to New Mexicans who were impacted by nuclear weapons testing in the U.S.

“There were an estimated half a million people, mostly rural families and tribal communities, that
lived within a 150-mile radius of the Trinity Test site, the location where J. Robert Oppenheimer
triggered the world’s first nuclear weapon,” the attorneys general from New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont wrote in their letter to congress.

“Without any warning or notification, this one test rained radioactive material across the homes, water, and food of thousands of New Mexicans. Those communities experienced the same symptoms of heart disease, leukemia, and other cancers as the downwinders in Nevada,” the letter claims.

Just a few years ago, the National Cancer Institute completed a large research project to try to identify the impacts of the 1945 Trinity test in New Mexico. The research concluded that although “there was no public notice before the test and no evacuations and a low detonation height . . . only small geographic areas immediately downwind received exposures of significance as judged by their magnitude relative to naturally occurring background radiation.”

Additional research also concluded that “it is not scientifically or biologically plausible that the low doses experienced from the Trinity fallout could result in transgenerational effects in the children of exposed residents near the Trinity site.” That goes against the claims of some of the children of the original Downwinders.

When it comes to the Downwinders’ cancer claims, “they don’t necessarily have to know that it was caused by Trinity fallout,” Dr. Maureen Merritt, a consultant and retired physician who has helped the Downwinders argue their case for compensation, said in a 2020 interview. “What’s important is that there’s some acknowledgment of what happened to them and some apology,” she explained.

The latest push for expanded compensation under RECA could be that acknowledgment. Over the years, New Mexico’s lawmakers have made efforts to expand federal compensation to cover New Mexico’s Downwinders. Those efforts have never fully yielded fruit. Now, rolled into the 2023 federal defense spending and authorization bill is text that would make some New Mexicans who were present in 1945 eligible to apply for federal compensation.

That bill has received approval from the Senate but still has to pass the House and be signed by the president. New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez (who says his grandmother was impacted by radiation) is hopeful that will happen. “We finally have an opportunity to right this historic wrong,” he said in a press release.

For some Downwinders, it’s not just about money. It’s about getting an apology and being able to trust the government.

“Probably the most important thing for me is for me to trust my government,” says Paul Pino, who has long been involved in the fight for Downwinders’ recognition. “We’re super patriotic, and I don’t want to lose that.”

Pino says he believes New Mexico’s Downwinders will eventually get compensation. It’s been more than three-quarters of a century since the Trinity blast, but no matter how long it takes, Pino says his family will keep fighting for recognition.

“I will never stop fighting for justice,” Pino, who’s already in his late 60s, says. “I’ll be fighting for years, I hope decades. And whenever I’m done, if it [the compensation bill] is not passed, my daughters are going to take over.”