When the U.S.’ first nuclear bomb was detonated in south-central New Mexico, it was believed to set off a chain of cancers and health problems suffered by the surrounding communities for generations.
People who grew up near the Trinity Test Site, near the remote communities of Carrizozo or Tularosa, were denied federal relief dollars afforded to other “downwinders” impacted by nuclear testing around the country.
Both towns were within 50 miles of the blast site, and advocates say they were exposed to radiation from the bomb testing.
They advocated for years that New Mexico’s downwinders be included in cash payments made to those affected by nuclear activities under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA).
Members of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium advocated for such support from state lawmakers during a Tuesday meeting of the interim Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Committee.
“It’s very emotional to reflect on all we’ve lost as a result of being exposed to radiation,” said consortium founder Tina Cordova, herself a survivor of thyroid cancer who said members of her family also suffered from myriad forms of the disease.
The committee, made up of state senators and representatives voted to send a letter to Congress, calling on the federal leaders to expand reparations to include New Mexicans.
Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-36) of Las Cruces, who chaired the committee, proposed it write a letter to congressional members to support an expansion of RECA to include New Mexicans, and lawmakers voted to do so.
“I feel like we really have some business we need to take care of in (Washington,) D.C.,” Steinborn said. “We really need as a state to bring pressure and get this done.”
Cordova said a bill to expand RECA and increase the amount of money included in the payments was already supported in the U.S. House of Representatives where it recently passed the Judiciary Committee.
She said the legislation would likely pass the House but could be blocked by Republicans in the Senate.
As the bill stands, those downwind of the Nevada site are eligible for one-time payments $50,000.
The consortium advocated for state lawmakers to support a bill being considered in Congress to expand RECA’s downwinder benefits to New Mexicans while raising payments to $150,000 and cover more uranium workers in the state.
If 100 residents of Carrizozo received the one-time payments of $150,000 as proposed, Cordova argued that would infuse the low-income community with $15 million, a level of funding that would be transformative for the village.
“It creates an economy all of its own,” she said. “Instead of being a drain on our economy, it actually brings money into our economy.”
Sen. Nancy Rodriguez (D-24) of Santa Fe said she introduced legislation last year which passed to create a committee to study increases in women dying during childbirth, contending radiation exposure such as from the Trinity test should be included in that research.
“Could this be a possibility that may be contributing, the radiation and exposure to the plutonium that we’re talking about,” Rodriguez said. “Perhaps it could be something that is affecting women that gets manifested at the time of birth.”
Cordova pointed to high infant mortality rates and diseases among the people living near the site, which she said were the result of testing at the site.
“We did have casualties and it was our babies,” Cordova said. “Nobody has ever accounted for this. That is shameful.”
She also pointed to economic depression in the rural community as its residents struggled for years with high medical bills Cordova attributed to the testing.
“We don’t have a chance in New Mexico to develop generational wealth,” Cordova said. “This has contributed greatly to the poverty we see here.”
Congress voted earlier this year to extend the RECA by two more years, via legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) and supported by the state’s entire congressional delegation and via a letter sent by the Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Committee.
But that legislation did not expand the compensation to include New Mexican downwinders, although it does give funds to some uranium miners mostly in the northern part of the state.
So far, downwinders were only federally recognized in parts of Arizona, Utah and Nevada attributed to activities at another nuclear test site in Nevada.
Before lawmakers, Cordova said the time extension gave more time for her state’s leaders to advocate their constituents be included in the relief.
“The only good thing about the extension is that now every member of Congress knows about RECA,” she said. “We couldn’t say that a few months ago.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.