While our nation struggles to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, New Mexicans are already engaged in a deadly health crisis that has cost the lives of thousands of our beloved family and community members for the past 75 years. This crisis is the overexposure to radiation from the world’s first nuclear bomb detonation at Trinity Site in south central New Mexico on July 16, 1945. In the process it made many New Mexicans the first “Downwinder” communities exposed to radiation from nuclear weapons. The Trinity test in New Mexico was followed by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki three weeks later and we are all memorializing our dead on this 75th anniversary of the nuclear age. And just as the country is waiting for a pandemic recovery plan, New Mexicans are still waiting to be included in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) found in U.S. House Bill 3783.
Concern about the health consequences of later nuclear tests in Nevada led to passage of RECA in 1990 which now provides $50,000 in death benefits for those fallen Downwinders in certain counties throughout Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Some of those Downwinders lived as far away as 238 miles from the Nevada test site.
However, New Mexicans were never covered under RECA. This despite thousands of men, women and children living within a 50-mile radius of Trinity test site according to the U.S. census. Some ranchers lived as close as 12 miles downwind of the test site. Government documents show New Mexicans were additionally contaminated by fallout from the Nevada tests many times between 1951 and 1962. Radiation poisoning is cumulative and deaths from cancer continue across generations.
For 75 years the government’s false narrative states that no one in New Mexico was harmed as a result of the Trinity test. However, statistics reveal that infant mortality rates skyrocketed during the months following the test. As one example of human suffering endured by New Mexicans, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an article by Kathleen Tucker and Robert Alvarez entitled “Trinity: The Most Significant Hazard of the Entire Manhattan Project.” In that article Tucker and Alvarez report: “Infant mortality for the months August, September, and October after the explosion indicated that New Mexican infants had a 56 percent increased risk of dying, with less than a 0.0001 percent chance that this was due to natural fluctuation.”
As Kathleen Tucker and Robert Alvarez stated in their article: “The current body of historical evidence of harm, negligence, and deception … should be more than enough for long overdue justice for the people in New Mexico who were downwind of Trinity.”
Joseph J. Shonka, a senior health physicist and nuclear engineer with more than 40 years of experience including at three of the U.S. National Laboratories, has stated that New Mexicans received 10,000 times more radiation than currently allowed.
Yet New Mexicans have not received a dime of the estimated $1.2 billion provided by RECA to Downwinders in other states. Mysteriously, Downwinder death benefits stop at the border between Arizona and New Mexico, as if there is a lead curtain between us.
Just one of the horrendous personal stories of fallout from Trinity involves young girls at a dance camp in Ruidoso, N.M. Barbara Kent recalls a fellow young lady stating, “Oh my god, it’s snowing in July.” Barbara Kent, 13-years-old at the time, went outside with the others, grabbing the "snow" and putting it all over their faces. It felt good and was somehow warm.
It wasn’t until much later that she learned the “snow” was fallout from Trinity Site, 60 to 70 miles away from Ruidoso. "I am the only survivor of anyone here at camp," Kent said recently. Most of the 10 or so young ladies who had participated in the camp later suffered from cancers and died before reaching the age of 40. Kent herself has battled multiple cancers including those of the skin and thyroid and has experienced miscarriages and stillbirths.
Knowing all of this, we continue to be haunted by the question: Why was New Mexico left out of RECA back in 1990 when it was first signed into law?
Are we being excluded because so many New Mexico Downwinders are Native or Hispanos? Is it because our state depends on funding for the nuclear weapons industry? Funding for uranium mining, nuclear studies, nuclear waste disposal and defense spending in New Mexico amounts to many billions of dollars, however, given the cost of health care today the financial losses to our citizens could amount to trillions.
We know that much of this legacy cannot be reversed. All we are asking for; all we are fighting for is this; Pass House Bill 3783. The amendments would provide an apology for the overexposure to radiation, $150,000 in death benefits for families and medical coverage for those battling cancer.
This fight isn’t new nor is the knowledge of the harm that was done. Louis Hemplemann, Jr., the medical director of the Trinity test, stated, “A few people were probably overexposed but they couldn’t prove it, and we couldn’t prove it… so we just assumed that we got away with it.”
America stands for justice, not what we can get away with. Please take a stand for American justice and ask your members of the Senate and House to do the same, pass House Bill 3783.
Bernice Zamora Gutierrez, born in Carrizozo, N.M., on July 8, 1945 and now lives in the Albuquerque metro area.
Paul Lopez Pino, born in Carrizozo, N.M., on May 29, 1954 and now lives in the Albuquerque metro area.