NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – In 1945, scientists tested an atomic bomb at the Trinity site in southern New Mexico. Today, families of locals that lived in the area are still looking to get compensation from the federal government, something they’ve been asking for years.
They call themselves the Downwinders, because their family members lived downwind of the 1945 atomic test. They say the bomb test led to cancer and other health problems among several generations, and they recently updated state legislators on their journey for recognitions and compensation.
“There was a fund established in 1990 that’s been taking care of downwinders from other places,” Tina Cordova, the co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, told legislators at a Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee last week. “But [the fund] has long since ignored the people of New Mexico.”
She’s talking about the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which provides uranium miners financial compensation for the health impacts of exposure to radioactive materials. RECA also provides a $75,000 one-time payment to some “onsite participants” of nuclear weapons tests, but that doesn’t currently include the New Mexico Downwinders.
Only Downwinders in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona are eligible. Cordova and other local Downwinders have been working to change that. Last year, U.S. Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez introduced a bill to include the New Mexico Downwinders. But the bill hasn’t moved much past the introduction stage.
“We’re just hoping that Senator [Ben Ray] Luján (D-NM) and Senator [Mike] Crapo (R-ID), Congresswoman Leger Fernandez (D-NM) — we’re hoping that they will move this bill as soon as possible,” Phil Harrison, a consultant for the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee, told state legislators. “We’re waiting on the Senate Judiciary to do their markup and move this bill. Now we only have about four months and understand that if nothing happens, this bill is dead.”
Part of the reason it’s been so hard to get acknowledgement and compensation is because it can be hard to pinpoint the exact cause of a cancer. In 2013, National Cancer Institute (NCI) researchers began trying to estimate how much radiation New Mexicans might have been exposed to in 1945. Their results didn’t give New Mexico’s Downwinders much help.
Ultimately, between 290 and 1,000 cancers were — or will be — caused by the Trinity test, in residents who were alive in 1945, the NCI research concluded. Additionally, researchers point out 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.”
This meant that many of the Downwinders currently seeking compensation can’t claim that the bomb caused cancers which passed down through generations — at least according to the researchers. The Downwinders dispute much of the research.
“There have been 29 [family members] who have had cancer and nine who live with radiation exposure diseases,” Bernice Gutierrez, a Member of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium told legislators. “My husband is a cancer survivor, and his family of nine children, five have had cancer and one thyroid disease. As evidenced by the above information, it’s extremely difficult to believe this is a normal occurrence in families.”
So the stakes are high, the consequences are serious, and the Downwinders have been waiting for years. So what are they asking local legislators to do to support their cause at the federal level? The Downwinders hope to spur congress into action by sending a letter.
State Senator Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces) promised to send a letter to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. By expressing support, maybe the stalled bill will be able to move forward.
Even if the bill doesn’t move forward, the Downwinders are unlikely to give up. After all, they’ve been introducing and re-introducing the bill in one form or another since 2009.
In addition, the Downwinders are hoping to find and access death certificates from 1945. That would help them assess whether or not radiation from the 1945 test could have affected pregnant women and children.