Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

‘People have been dying ever since’: Anger mixes with hope for NM Downwinders

Lit by the glow of hundreds of luminarias at dusk, a group gathers in Robinson Park, Las Cruces to hear the list of more than 800 names read aloud, punctuated by rumbles of distant thunder.

This is the legacy of the atomic age, the list of people who’ve died of cancer around the Tularosa Basin since 1945, when the first atomic bomb, codenamed, “Trinity” detonated across the deserts of Southern New Mexico.

Despite the government’s continued description of the Jornada del Muerto test site as “isolated,” and “remote” in archives, tens of thousands of people lived within 50 miles of the first nuclear blast. These people, and their descendants were marked by diseases without family histories – including leukemia and other cancers. They are the Downwinders.

The list of names grows longer, but the time for an apology and restitution is running out. Again.

July 16 marked the 78th anniversary since the Trinity Test; the vigil marks another year that New Mexicans are still seeking justice after the federal government’s exposure of citizens to nuclear fallout 78 years ago.

The Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, founded in 2005, is a group lobbying for people living in Carrizozo, Tularosa, Socorro, and other places touched by the first atomic bomb.

Communities feel abandoned by the government, said Tina Cordova, one of the group’s founders, during a speech opening an art exhibit on Downwinders in Las Cruces.

“We were the first people exposed to radiation any place in the world as a result of an atomic bomb,” Cordova told the crowd Saturday. “It’s 33 years, folks, and they have looked away from us. It’s 78 years since the test, what has happened in our communities? People have been dying ever since.”

The widely hyped movie “Oppenheimer” premieres this week. Its focus will be on the titular character, and other scientists at Los Alamos who built the atomic bombs. New Mexico Downwinders are hoping that their story will have its big break as well.

“Lots of people, for the first time ever, are going to consider this history. And when they do, they will find us,” Cordova said.

the Tularosa danzantes opened an art exhibit showcasing New Mexico Downwinders. Fernando Leal, 33, who is from Tularosa, said it was important to bring awareness to his community. “A lot of the people that I know have passed away in my family from cancer,’ he said. “We’s alls heard the stories growing up about how the Trinity bomb went off.” (Danielle Prokop / Source NM)

RECA on the rocks

The federal government has a program that offers both an apology and monetary compensation for people sickened by diseases from radiation exposure. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), passed in 1990, came after decades of above-ground testing in the American West and Pacific Islands. After the courts dismissed a series of lawsuits claiming the U.S. failed to warn about the dangers of radiation exposure, the fund was set up to provide partial restitution.

What is RECA?

RECA is a unique fund, paying out one-time benefit payments. It requires people establish they have a diagnosis of listed diseases after working or living in designated irradiated locations over specific periods of time.

Currently, only uranium miners, millers, transporters, people who worked on weapons test sites and people who lived in specific Utah, Arizona and Nevada counties downwind of test sites are eligible.

Covered cancers for Downwinders include certain bone cancers, plasma cancer and lymphatic cancers. Also included are primary cancers of the throat, thyroid, gall bladder, colon, small intestine, lung, brain, stomach, bladder, ovaries, pancreas, breasts, or liver.

Families can collect compensation on behalf of a deceased relative.

An effort to amend the RECA failed in 2022, however, Congress voted to extend the program until 2024, giving a small reprieve to lawmakers trying to expand the program.

In early July, Sen. Ben Ray Luján and Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, along with Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández put forward legislation in both houses to amend RECA again.

The bill would recognize Downwinders in additional states, expand some of the covered conditions, and extend the life of the fund by another 20 years.

The 29-page amendments to the law include:

  • Adding New Mexico, Idaho, Montana and Guam to recognized downwind states and territories.
  • Allowing Trinity Test Site downwinders to access benefits.
  • Expanding some of the eligible conditions for both downwinders and people involved in mining, including chronic lymphocytic leukemia and other cancers.
  • Expands who qualifies under mining, including people working to remediate the sites.
  • It would establish a federal grant program for universities to study uranium millers and their families’ health.
  • Setting the “sunset” for the fund 19 years from enactment.

The last time it was introduced, in 2021, a house version of the bill stalled after passing through the House Judiciary Committee and  faced similar, competing legislation. This year, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona), introduced a bill that would expand RECA solely for certain counties in Arizona.

Luján told Source NM the alternate bill “opens the door” for support of the comprehensive amendments.

All five of New Mexico’s delegation to Congress strongly support the bill, Luján said. Sen. Martin Heinrich reaffirmed his commitment to “compensate and care” for people impacted by the nuclear testing program. “That absolutely includes New Mexico’s Tularosa Downwinders,” he said in an emailed statement.

But the challenge remains convincing other lawmakers to join. Lawmakers in both houses have balked at expanding RECA, Luján said.

“They will say that it’s too expensive of an initiative,” Luján said. “My reply to them is ‘go look my constituents in the eye and tell them ‘this is too expensive to help’’ with the cancer that they’re fighting.”

In three decades, RECA has paid out $2.6 billion dollars to more than 40,000 people. That’s a fraction of a percent of the $634 billion the federal government plans to spend on nuclear weapons and development in the next decade, according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

At Saturday’s opening, Cordova urged the crowd to call on New Mexico’s five lawmakers to push their colleagues in Congress on the program. She said justice looks like acknowledgement of Downwinders, increased health care where people can get free cancer screenings, and restitution.

Cordova said if RECA expires, it will extinguish Downwinder’s efforts.

“We’re out of luck if it expires, they’ll never put a program like this back together, they just won’t,” Cordova told Source NM.

On the precipice

Cordova listed off names, including her co-founder Fred Tyler, along with Henry Herrera, and his wife Gloria, who died before seeing justice.

“It’s shameful they don’t just ignore us for 78 years, but they keep us on this precipice of wondering whether they’re going to extend the program again,” she said.

Herrera described seeing the blast when he was 11 years old, writing he thought ‘the World is coming to an End.” He died in 2022, after years of fighting cancer since a diagnosis in 1998.

Gloria, who died in 2020, documented how treatments for his aggressive jaw and saliva gland cancer was a financial and emotional burden. She wrote in 2014 that she knew of 279 people in Tularosa who had died of cancer since 1945.

“That atomic bomb has caused anguish to so many people in New Mexico,” she wrote in a statement. “I say we are sufferers of radiation exposure and our government should apologize to us for being abandoned to our fate.”

Even as the list of living witnesses to Trinity’s impact dwindles, Cordova, and other Downwinders believe momentum is building.

An art exhibition on Downwinders is showing in the Las Cruces’ Branigan Cultural Center. Cordova is coordinating with national Downwinder and anti-nuclear groups to protest or speak on panels about the Oppenheimer movie. And national media is seeking the group’s perspective, she said.

“When they came here to develop the Manhattan Project, they invaded our lands and our lives, and they treated us like collateral damage,” Cordova said. “When they came here to make the movie, they took advantage of our tax incentives. They invaded our lands in our lives, and they walked away.”

Tina Cordova, founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium speaks before a crowd on July 15, at the opening of an art exhibit on Downwinders. (Danielle Prokop / Source NM)

Cordova herself has a verbal habit. She’ll mention something – like describing the day the fallout fell, covering cattle, vegetables, or floated in the water cisterns and ditches – and then adds “I’ll talk about that in a minute,” in her speeches.

She’s counting every minute she has left, she said in an interview, her hands miming thread spooling out from her head. Tears fill her eyes.

“This is my life’s work, I’m never really fully present for anything else,” she said.

Cordova is open about her struggle with thyroid cancer, the agonizing death of her father from jaw cancer, her grandfathers’ deaths from an unknown “stomach cancer.” She wants to see RECA amended before she dies.

The only time the countdown stops is when she’s fishing up north, looking and the river rushing by, or the silver expanse of the lake.

“It’s the only time I actually stop and have to wait for something to happen,” she said. “It’s the only time, I don’t have to be in motion, making things happen.”

‘It ain’t over until we win’

Just before the vigil on Saturday, the weather grew dramatic, wind ripped across the park, whipping through the rows of paper bags and causing the cottonwoods to swoon. Deep thunder banks built up, and lightning forked across the sky.

Travis McKenzie, a social studies teacher at Polk Middle School in Albuquerque, volunteered with his students to decorate all the paper bags for this year’s vigil, after inviting Cordova to speak to the class. McKenzie hadn’t heard of the Downwinders until earlier last year, but said now he’s working to build a curriculum to teach it.

“This should just be a part of New Mexico history, it should be a part of the way we teach U.S. history,” McKenzie said.

New Mexico Downwinders demand recognition, justice

Elijah Fleming, 14, was one of three students who accompanied McKenzie to the vigil. Fleming, who recently moved to Albuquerque with his family from Florida, said he was shocked when Cordova talked about the impact the bomb test had.

“I can’t feel exactly what everybody is feeling about this, but this is a tragedy,” Fleming said. “I feel good helping out, because I would feel bad too if my parents or family members back then passed away because of the atomic bomb, and nobody knew about it.”

Doris Walters, from Tularosa, picked among the rows before the luminarias were lit, looking for her family members.

She said she was touched by the effort the students put into decorating the bags, adding flowers, hearts crosses and other drawings in marker. She noted the watermelons drawn onto relative’s luminarias.“They were farmers, so it’s this happy coincidence,” she said.

As the sun set, peeking between the horizon and the curtain of cloud, the wind died down. A rosy glow matched the candlelight in the bags. A tiny, light rain fell, then quieted.

Long after the dark fell, Paul Pino concluded the night with songs dedicated to Downwinders.

“The Trinity crater isn’t as deep as the wound in our hearts,” he sang, ending on the upbeat chorus: “It’ ain’t over, til we win.”

Lit luminarias at a vigil for people who have died from cancer in the Tularosa Basin. The vigil was marked the 78th anniversary of the Trinity test, which subjected New Mexicans to the first atomic exposing and radioactive fallout.

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