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NM uranium workers, downwinders finally get a hearing

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Dispatch New Mexico

By Tom McDonald

Seventy-three years ago this week, the United States detonated the first-ever atomic bomb in New Mexico, in a remote desert location now known as the Trinity Test Site.

It was a top-secret affair that would lead to the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. And while this test about 30 miles east of Carrizozo may be only a footnote in world history, for those who lived near the site at the time, it changed their lives forever.

Of course we all know now that, with every nuclear explosion, there’s radioactive fallout. According to one estimate, about 19,000 people lived in the area around the Trinity site, but they received no warning of what was about to occur. Evidence suggests they were written off as collateral damage, as the scientists themselves took steps to shield themselves from the radiation they knew would come, while the locals were left uninformed and unprotected.

The result was some incredible stories about the heat and the light that came on the day of the explosion, followed by unexplained illnesses that affected nearly every family living in the fallout area.

Sixty years later, in 2005, the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium was formed to collect data on the cancers and other illnesses that had riddled the area since the explosion on July 16, 1945 — in an effort, which continues today, to get the federal government to own up to what it did to its own citizens.

Tina Cordova, a Tularosa native and co-founder of the consortium, has herself suffered through cancer. She says her father’s overexposure to high levels of radiation as a child damaged his cells, led to multiple bouts of cancer for him and permanently altered his DNA, which was passed on to his daughter, and her children, and “our children’s children, from one generation to another, never to be the same.”

Those words are from testimony Cordova gave last month to the Senate Judiciary Committee as it considers legislation sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, to expand the eligibility for payouts under the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act (RECA) of 1990. Udall’s bill would broaden the compensation to victims of uranium mine work in the Navajo Nation, as well as those living with the consequence of the Trinity blast in the Tularosa Basin.

According to a report about the hearing by Michael Coleman in the Albuquerque Journal, Udall has been pushing to expand the RECA bill for more than a decade.

The irony of ironies is that, while victims of uranium mining and nuclear testing have been recognized and compensated through much of the western U.S., the state where the first bomb as detonated has been left behind. Over the years (and thanks in large measure to the Tularosa consortium), the evidence has piled that the fallout of the Trinity bomb has contaminated the locals and their communities in a way that, as Cordova’s personal story attests, spans the generations.

Why did the federal government exclude the original downwinders from the RECA compensation program? The reason seems to be a mixture of politics, economics and racism, and there’s the hint of all three in a quote attributed to Louis Hempelmann, doctor and radiologist with the Manhattan Project at the time:  “… a few people were probably overexposed, but they couldn’t prove it and we couldn’t prove it, so we just assumed we got away with it.”
The Judiciary Committee’s hearing of testimony from Cordova and Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez was a victory of sorts for those who are still fighting for official recognition. According to the Journal’s reporting, previous hearings had been postponed at least twice before, so perhaps progress is being made.

Maybe such a step forward will encourage those who, for the past nine years, have held a candlelight vigil in Tularosa to remember those who have died and honor those who have survived. It will take place at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 21, at the Tularosa Little League Field.
You can visit trinitydownwinders.com for more information.

Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. He also owns and operates The Communicator, a weekly newspaper in Santa Rosa. He can be reached at tmcdonald.srnm@gmail.com.