By Danielle Prokop/Source NM
The story of the Trinity Test Site is mapped onto the bodies of thousands of New Mexicans, slipped between stories of losing family member after family member to cancer.
For Tina Cordova, bringing light to the legacy from the secretive testing of the first atomic bomb near thousands of people in the deserts of Southern New Mexico has been her work for more than 16 years.
Thursday is National Downwinder Day, and Cordova hopes to secure a promise from the federal government to pay New Mexicans what is owed, she said, and acknowledge fault in exposing citizens to fallout nearly 77 years ago.
“The damage, the sacrifice, the suffering that people have been through here is not to be believed,” Cordova said.
The fine dust
In the early hours of July 16, 1945, an unmatched explosive force tore across the Jornada del Muerto desert, bringing the world into the Atomic Age.
But it didn’t end there.
White dust coated people, animals, homes and crops, entering the soil and the water supplies.
Bernice Gutierrez was 8-days-old when the bomb detonated. She was born in Carrizozo, N.M., 35 miles away from the test site. After a few years, her family moved to Albuquerque, but damage had already been done by fine particles of radioactive fallout.
First, her great-grandfather died of stomach cancer. Cousins and aunts had bouts of breast cancer, brain tumors. Her mother had skin cancer, thyroid cancer and breast cancer. One brother and niece had thyroid cancer. Another prostate cancer. Her sister’s own thyroid cancer came back three times, growing more aggressive.
Gutierrez, now 76, said her doctor helped her connect the dots that her family was exposed to radiation but only started advocacy work after seeing Cordova talk about trying to organize Trinity Downwinders in a television interview.
“It was like a lightbulb turned on inside of me,” she said.
The first ever National Cancer Institute study released in 2020 estimated as many as 1,000 New Mexicans living to the northeast of the site developed cancer from radioactive fallout, possibly fewer. The study cautioned that imperfect memories of people’s diets from the time, and no tracking of cancer at the state level before 1960 paints an incomplete picture.
“Hence, it is not possible to know, with certainty, if cancer rates changed in New Mexico in the first decades after the test compared to before the test,” the study said.
Data collected by the New Mexico Department of Health in 1945 showed increased infant mortality in the region went largely ignored by federal officials.
Gutierrez and Cordova, who was born in Tularosa, N.M., are among the many New Mexicans demanding recognition of the impact radiation exposure had on their lives.
“This movement has gotten to almost a tipping point,” Cordova said. “Because we’re working with Downwinders from other parts of the country, who were also harmed as a result of above-ground nuclear testing, I think we’re closer than ever before.”
Activists and proponents of a federal program to compensate people suffering from radiation exposure are in a race against time.
The federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) provides money to people harmed from uranium mining or exposure through the atmosphere during atomic tests. It’s set to expire on July 10.
Cordova, the group she co-founded called Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, and the state’s congressional delegates have been lobbying for years to include New Mexicans in RECA.
Reckoning through RECA
Congress originally passed RECA in 1990 after decades of above-ground testing in the American West and the Pacific Islands. RECA is the alternative to lawsuits. It is a unique fund, not requiring individuals to prove they were exposed. Rather, people qualify if they establish they have a diagnosis with listed diseases after working or living in designated irradiated locations over specific periods.
Only uranium miners, millers and transporters, people on weapons test sites and people in certain counties in Utah, Nevada and Arizona who lived downwind of the Nevada test sites are eligible to receive lump-sum compensation.
Compensable cancers for Downwinders include certain Leukemia types, 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 are also able to collect compensation on behalf of a deceased relative.
Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) said the bill he introduced with co-sponsor Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Ill.) would extend benefits to Downwinders previously left out of RECA.
In addition to people already recognized in Utah, Nevada and Arizona, Downwinders exposed in Montana, New Mexico, the territory of Guam and Idaho, would receive $50,000 lump-sum payouts and medical benefits under the legislation.
“The health care coverage will mean the difference between life and death for some people in New Mexico,” Cordova said.
The bill, she said, could provide the justice her group has been seeking — both as an acknowledgement and restitution, possibly in the millions of dollars.
“It will be transformative when there are families where five, six, seven members of one family have lost their lives to cancer,” she said. “If those cancers are compensable cancers, those families will be able to apply for the partial restitution and recapture some of the economic burden this has placed on their families.”
Over 32 years, the RECA has paid out almost $2.5 billion dollars to nearly 38,000 people.
That’s a fraction of a percent of what the United States expects to spend on nuclear weapons, with the Congressional Budget Office estimating the cost over the next decade to be $634 billion.
The program is set to end just as some of the youngest people impacted by nuclear tests done in the 1960s and 1970s, are entering their 60s — when many of the cancers listed emerge.
The effort to extend the fund has made some gains but still has a long way to go. A House version of the bill, introduced by Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.), passed through the House Judiciary Committee by a 25-8 margin. To move forward, that bill needs a House floor vote, Senate committee approval and a Senate floor vote.
Other lawmakers, such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) have proposed legislation that would limit the expansion of RECA to only include New Mexico and Utah. Narrowing the scope, though, could mean the measure would stall in the Senate, so the idea is causing some Downwinders concern.
Luján is in talks with senators from Utah, Montana and Arizona, and said lawmakers agree that the program as is should be extended.
“We hope to be able to find compromise legislation,” Luján said. “While we are working on that, what we all agree on is that this program needs to be extended so that it does not lapse in June 2022.”
‘We need an apology’
For the last eight years, Gutierrez has been on the Steering Committee for the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, doing research on infant mortality in the 1940s, but also documenting her own family’s experiences.
She said 41 members of her family experienced some form of sickness, including 23 members that have had cancer, and seven have died as a result, including her son from preleukemia in 2020.
It marked her body, and she had her thyroid removed because it was precancerous. But worse, she said, is the worry she carries for her grandchildren and great-grandchild, that they will carry financial burdens in the future.
Gutierrez said she wants justice for herself and others impacted by the nuclear industry in New Mexico, from the uranium mines to the Downwinders.
“We need an apology to the people of New Mexico, how we have been ignored and overlooked for 76 years,” she said. “We deserve the same amount of compensation if not more because of the damage and the length of time that we’ve been neglected.”
Cover photo: Bernice Gutierrez’s mom, Eugenia, and dad, Bonifacio Zamora, pictured with Bernice in Carrizozo, N.M. (Photo courtesy of Bernice Gutierrez)