Time to recognize New Mexico’s Trinity downwinders
By Linda Pentz Gunter
When Barbara Kent was twelve years old she went away to dance camp. It was July 1945. A dozen young girls were enjoying a summer retreat, sleeping together in a cabin, and sharing their love of dance. On July 16 they danced with something deadly.
After being jolted unexpectedly out of bed, they went outside pre-dawn when it should have been dark, to find it bright as day with a strange white ash falling like snowflakes. “Winter in July,” Kent, now 86 years old, has called it.
The girls rubbed the “snowflakes” on their bodies and caught them with their tongues. Before they all turned 40, 10 of the 12 girls had died.
No one had warned the girls, or their teacher, or anyone in the community, that the US government had just exploded the first atomic bomb a little more than 50 miles away at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico, now known as the Trinity Test Site. The “snowflakes” were deadly radioactive fallout and just the beginning of an endless — and likely permanent — cycle of disease, death and deprivation.
“While it was not the end of the world, it was the beginning of the end for so many people,” said Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, an organization that “seeks justice for the unknowing, unwilling and uncompensated participants of the July 16, 1945 Trinity test in southern New Mexico.”
Uncompensated because, even though the Trinity atomic bomb was detonated in New Mexico, and for no reason that anyone has yet ascertained, the people of New Mexico dosed by the fallout have never been acknowledged or officially recognized by the federal government as downwinders. They have never been compensated and, certainly, they have never received an apology from the US government.
That is why, for the past eight years, first as a US congressman and now as a member of the US Senate, Tom Udall (D-NM) has been fighting for the Trinity downwinders in his state to be included in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act that, since the law’s inception in 1990, and even after it was amended in 2000, has failed, among others, to include New Mexico victims of the Trinity test.
On June 26, 2018, a hearing finally took place before the US Senate Judiciary Committee, at which Udall and many victims of exposure to radioactive fallout and uranium mining — on the Navajo Nation, in Idaho, New Mexico and even Guam — testified. All of them asked that RECA be amended once again to include those forgotten, ignored and affected, even though in many ways it is coming seventy three years too late.
“People sometimes ask me, ‘why don’t you just move?’” said Cordova when we talked after the Hill hearing. “Well the only safe day to move was July 15, 1945.”
Cordova describes the Trinity downwind community in New Mexico as having been “relegated to a sort of nothingness as if we don’t count.” The population is riddled with cancers and other radiation-related diseases, as Cordova’s organization has documented in its own health survey that has been ongoing for the last 10 years. The Tularosa population is mainly Hispanic, Native American and low income white ranchers, with no nearby access to the specialist health care they most need, such as oncology units.
“Living in rural New Mexico, we can never get treatment at home because there are no medical facilities in the small towns and villages where we live,” said Cordova in her June 26 testimony before the judicial committee. “It places us in a position of undue stress both emotionally and financially.
“People tell me stories of how they hold bake sales to buy pain medications or how they have to sell cattle to pay for their chemotherapy,” Cordova continued. “How a wife has to go door to door in her Pueblo community to try to raise money for fuel to get her husband to and from his treatments in Albuquerque. When a family has to spend all they have to obtain the medical care they need to survive cancer they can never develop assets. They only develop debt. There is nothing to pass on except their damaged DNA to their children and grandchildren.”
Cordova herself watched her father die after suffering for eight years from “three different cancers that he didn’t have risk factors for.” Her father was four when the Trinity test happened and lived just 40 miles away. She herself is a survivor of thyroid cancer with which she was diagnosed “out of nowhere.” She lives every day with the dread that she might have passed on damaged genes to her son and grandchildren.
Almost everyone she knows in her community has cancer or knows someone who does — often multiple members of one family. “And it has become a multi-generational thing for us,” she said. “I am the fourth generation in my family to have cancer. But we continue to receive doses.”
One of the reasons for that, she says, is because when the infamous “Gadget” exploded, it was on a platform just 100 feet off the ground, unlike the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs which detonated more than 1,500 feet in the air. Because the explosion happened so close to the ground, “the blast had nowhere to go,” said Cordova.
Of the 13lbs of plutonium in the bomb, only 3lbs fissioned. The rest scattered into the environment, blasting into and binding with the soil and turning into a green glassy form now known at Trinitite or Alamogordo glass. The fallout got into the crops and vegetation, cows’ milk and water supplies.
At the time of the blast, most of the surrounding populations were subsistence farmers, growing their own food, drinking milk produced by their cattle and living off the land. As one man told Cordova, “We didn’t have much but we had all we needed and it was all destroyed after the bomb.”
The RECA process, which compensates uranium miners and millers who worked before 1971 (a date the amendment also asks to change), along with downwinders in Utah and Nevada, is a cumbersome process that maintains a high bar for proof of residency and harm. Navajo miners have struggled with language barriers and burdens of proof. Often their permanent addresses are not accepted as legal because they are post office boxes.
For the Trinity downwinders, the order will be even taller, as they will be obliged to dig out health records more than seven decades old, a task Cordova fears, might be “an impossibility” for many.
Cordova’s activism was spurred she says, “because I grew up in a small town and everyone was dying. It was very evident to me that something was different about us, the rates at which we get sick and die.” When she got her thyroid cancer diagnosis, the first question the doctor asked her was where she had been exposed to radiation. “I knew I could no longer be silenced about what I saw happening around me, the devastation, the suffering, the sacrifice” she said.
The Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium was formed just 13 years ago and has been instrumental in working with Udall and others to get inclusion for Trinity downwinders in RECA. But why did it take so long for activism to begin?
“People through the years have believed no one’s going to listen to them, no one’s going to come back, no one cares,” said Cordova. “They are waiting for all of us to die — that’s the sentiment of a lot of people in those communities. People think it’s their burden to bear.
“I also think that the government has had a very difficult time acknowledging that they damaged people in the process of developing a nuclear device,” Cordova added. “That they truly over-exposed American citizens in that process, and I think that’s a very harsh and hard reality for people to accept.”
The failure to acknowledge these deliberate government atrocities is sadly a pervasive aspect of the atomic testing story, from the Marshall Islands to Maralinga and everywhere else. Cordova recalled how “the physician who served as the Manhattan Project Medical Director, Dr. Louis Hempelmann, stated afterwards, and I quote, ‘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.’”
However, this time she and her group feel more optimistic that Udall’s efforts will prevail and that the RECA amendment will finally pass and deliver long overdue justice to her community.
“From the very beginning, the federal government has refused to take responsibility,” said Udall, who is not a member of the committee but who testified on behalf of the bi-partisan legislation, S-197. While we can never undo the years of suffering and illness caused by radiation exposure, we must do all that we can to ensure these victims and their families are recognized and made whole.”
Now it is up to Udall and the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to get the job done. It is chaired by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa who attended the hearing briefly and asked a promising question about how the burdensome compensation process might be improved. The proceeding was led by Republican Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho who is working to get his own downwind community included in RECA. Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey, who took an active part in the proceeding, announced his co-sponsorship of the bill at the end of it.
“New Mexicans were the first people in the world to be exposed to radiation as a result of a nuclear test,” Cordova reminded the committee. How ironic, then, that they remain among the last to be compensated.
Headline photo shows, left to right, Rosalie Cordova, (Tina’s mother), Laura Greenwood and Tina Cordova. (Photo courtesy of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety).