August 22, 2023

New evidence bolsters downwinders’ claims as efforts to expand RECA advance in Congress

Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization

New Mexico downwinders are hoping to have the state added to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act before it sunsets in 2022.

Radioactive fallout from the Trinity Test site covered virtually all of New Mexico and reached as far away as Canada, according to new evidence. But the people who lived closest to the site, and have suffered the health consequences such as cancer, have not received any compensation from the federal government.

The new evidence, along with new efforts to help residents of Missouri impacted by radioactive waste, may help New Mexico downwinders finally receive the compensation.

Representatives from the community asked the state legislature’s interim Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee for continued support in the efforts to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provides financial payments to certain people who have been exposed to radiation and have developed health conditions as a result of that exposure, to include New Mexico downwinders.

Scientists, including lead author Sébastien Philippe from Princeton University, published a study last month that showed the fallout was deposited in Crawford Lake in Ontario, Canada and also impacted 46 states as well as Mexico. According to estimates, the fallout may have reached Crawford Lake as soon as four days after the bomb’s detonation in New Mexico.

The Trinity test was the first nuclear weapon test in the United States. The bomb was detonated in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico.

Socorro County has the fifth highest deposition of radioactive fallout in the country. The other counties with that level of radioactive fallout are already included in RECA.

Tina Cordova, the cofounder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, referenced this study in her remarks to the committee on Monday.

“The US government has for years said to the people of New Mexico and everybody else concerned that the fallout from Trinity went off in this northeasterly direction in a very orderly fashion over the most unpopulated parts of our state, over five counties essentially,” she said. “And we have said over and over that we know that that is actually not true. And why do we know that? Because we recorded oral histories from people who were alive at the time and who experienced the fallout for days afterwards.”

Cordova said that the new study backs up those stories and the evidence in the study is important in the downwinders’ fight to receive compensation from the federal government. She said the downwinders have always hoped that researchers would take on such a project.

Cordova said that soil samples from the Trinity Test site have shown a unique signature that allows researchers to trace fallout back to the bomb.

“The people of New Mexico have never been included in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, although we were the first people exposed to radiation anyplace in the world as a result of an atomic bomb,” Cordova said. “We’ve been suffering ever since and people have been dying ever since.”

Cordova herself is the fourth generation in her family to develop cancer and, she said, now a fifth generation in her family has developed cancer.

“For 75 years, the government’s false narrative states that no one in New Mexico was harmed as a result of the Trinity test,” Barbara Webber, the executive director of Health Action New Mexico, said. “However, statistics revealed that infant mortality rates skyrocketed during the months following the test.” 

For thirteen years, members of Congress have sought to expand RECA to include New Mexico downwinders as well as people who worked in uranium mining and milling after 1971. For the first time, this year, the legislation went to a vote on the Senate floor and passed.

Cordova credited this milestone to the efforts of Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri.

An investigation by the Missouri Independent, the Associated Press and MuckRock found that the federal government as well as private entities downplayed and failed to investigate the risks of radioactive waste contaminating water in the St. Louis area. Some of this waste was tied to the Manhattan Project. 

That investigation was published in July.

Since then, Hawley has been demanding that the government be held accountable and working to get those people in Missouri included in an expanded RECA that would allow them to be compensated for the health damages.

Cordova said New Mexico’s downwinders saw a video of Hawley speaking about the contamination and risks on the Senate floor. They then approached Sen. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat from New Mexico who has been trying for more than a dozen years to expand RECA. 

Related: As Oppenheimer film brings attention to nuclear testing, Senate passes bill that could bring compensation to New Mexico downwinders

She said Luján worked with Hawley to draft a bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to expand RECA. But that amendment is not in the House of Representatives’ version of the act and the Senate and House will need to go through a process known as reconciliation.

Cordova encouraged people to reach out to members of the House of Representatives, especially Republicans including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and urge them to support the expansion of RECA.

If it does make it to the president’s desk, President Joe Biden said during his visit to New Mexico earlier this month that he supports expanding RECA.

Last year, Biden signed a bill extending the timeline for eligible people to make claims under RECA. While that did not expand the funding to New Mexico downwinders, it kept open the possibility that they could receive compensation.

Should RECA be expanded, there is a qualification process downwinders would need to go through and only certain types of health impacts, such as specific cancers, are included.

Cordova said should RECA be expanded, the job of the consortium changes dramatically. She said at that point the efforts will be focused on getting as many people qualified as possible.