This is an article about the effects that an atomic blast had on the citizens of New Mexico.
Although it could have been an story about the dangers of nuclear weapons in an increasingly unstable world, it is not. Instead it’s the story of the people of the Tularosa Basin.
That area of New Mexico is south of Albuquerque. It’s adjacent to the White Sands Missile Range. The Trinity Site, the the place where the first atomic device was successfully detonated on July 16, 1945, is in the northwest corner of the range, in Socorro County.
In the years that have passed since, some of the people in the inhabited areas within a 150-mile radius of the Trinity test have come to call themselves “downwinders.” They say that the radioactive fallout from the Trinity device poisoned their towns and their land, and in the process, created a perfect storm of cancerous proportions.
From thyroid cancer in multiple generations to autoimmune diseases like lupus, the toll exacted on the Tularosa Basin Downwinders has been profound. However, unlike the other survivors of American nuclear testing in the West—for instance, those in Nevada who were exposed to radioactive fallout from the above-ground testing of nuclear weapons—the humans in New Mexico who have suffered and continue to suffer from the effects of radiation receive no compensation or aid from the federal government.
According to leaders of the downwinders movement here in The Land of Enchantment, that simple fact must change if justice is to be done.
In an effort to understand exactly what is at stake, Weekly Alibi met with Trinity Downwinders Therese Perea and Bernice Gutierrez. They discussed the issue, including its history, possible points of resolution and an upcoming event in Albuquerque that they hope will highlight their plight and speed up the process in Congress to get them included in the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
The Manhattan Project came to New Mexico in the form of Project Y, a secret laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Led by Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves, it was there, at the former site of the Los Alamos Ranch School that research and development on an implosion-type atomic device began.
The process was initiated in late 1942 when the federal government purchased tens of thousands of acres in the area near the city that New Mexicans now refer to as Los Alamos. A year later, after more than $7 million was spent outfitting the lab and building surrounding infrastructure and roads, Oppenheimer became director of the facility, a title he would hold till a few months after the Trinity test.
Within a year of Oppenheimer’s ascent to a proper leadership role, work was completed on the “gadget,” an implosion-type device that used the highly radioactive and previously very rare metal plutonium as its main feature.
Implosion-type atomic devices work by imploding a sphere of plutonium surrounded by an uranium reflector and high-powered explosives encased in a bomb shell. When the high-powered explosives are activated, they cause a spherical shock wave that crushes the plutonium core. The result of that chemical reaction is a criticality; an explosive chain reaction begins milliseconds after the crushing shock wave inside the device begins.
Despite some fear that the aforementioned design would not work, would “fizzle” in the argot of the scientists working on the gadget—or, that, as was the opinion of researcher Edward Teller, an uncontrolled chain reaction started by the device would ignite the entirety of Earth’s atmosphere—the test at Trinity was a resounding success.
Less than a month later, the US unleashed the same terrifying power—directly witnessed at Trinity by 425 scientists, engineers and military men—on the people of Japan. Those demonstrations of American nuclear power killed and wounded 225,000 humans. Years later, the survivors of those nuclear encounters, their children and their grandchildren still suffer the effects of ionizing radiation.
But what about the survivors of the Trinity blast? There were thousands of New Mexico families living within 50 miles of the blast. Although no citizens were killed in the actual explosion, the immediate effect of the ground burst was profound, as fallout from the explosion of the device drifted east and southeast with prevailing winds, eventually covering part of the Tularosa Basin with radioactive fallout.
Similar above-ground tests were performed post-war in states like Nevada during the years following Trinity. As a result of oversight into such nuclear activities, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990. The act establishes lump sum compensation for individuals who contract specific diseases, such as cancer, due to US testing.
Although the act covers uranium miners and ore transporters, as well as onsite participants and “individuals who lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site,” it does not even mention, much less cover the Trinity Downwinders.
The purpose of the group, then, is to ensure that RECA begins the process of including them, too.
Therese Perea—who grew up in Capitan, N.M. but now makes her home here in Burque—is matter of fact about the RECA situation. She feels that the US government has abandoned her and her fellow New Mexicans who were also exposed to the ill aftereffects of Trinity.
At the offices of Weekly Alibi, both seem defiant and proud, yet there is a certain fragility laced with endurance that surrounds both of them. Bernice Gutierrez began their tale by talking about the group’s current efforts.
“I’m on the steering committee for the consortium [Trinity Downwinders]. What we are doing now is trying to get New Mexico included in RECA. We don’t know why we weren’t included when the act went through Congress in 1990. Why we’ve never been included, we don’t know.”
Gutierrez continues to unwind facts from the massive spool of events engendered by nuclear testing in the US and, consequently, the passage of RECA in 1990.
“They’ve [the federal government] already distributed over $2.3 billion in compensation and health care. And what New Mexicans are really, really coveting in this case is the health care card associated with the act. That card would entitle them to the best health care anywhere in the country.”
In a nation where health care costs keep increasing and in a state where economic factors often contribute to problems with health care access, such would be of supreme benefit to folks like the downwinders, Gutierrez tells our reporter.
“Like so many New Mexicans, if you work and you lose your job because you are sick—especially with something deadly like cancer—as a result, you lose your insurance. You can’t afford to pay your co-pays. You can’t afford the gas to get you to a provider so you can receive medical attention. This is really true in the rural communities in the Tularosa Basin. Many, many people that we are aware of have had to have bake sales just to get gas money. Many people in this state are on Medicaid.”
A quick look at the numbers reveals that, essentially, Gutierrez is right. More than 630,000 New Mexicans, which is a third of our state’s population, are currently enrolled in Medicaid.
And as far as Medicaid relates to endemic poverty, the following eligibility guidelines are also an important part of this story. Simply explained without the use of government acronyms, Medicaid eligibility is based on income. The maximum income for an individual to qualify is $15,800 per year. For a four-person family, the limit is $32,319 per year.
In doing the math, it becomes clear that many of the same population of New Mexicans afflicted by the ill effects of Trinity are also endemically poor and underserved as a result.
The thing is many of those in the region on Medicare who were affected by the Trinity test would be able to “get off Medicare and get on with their lives if they were included in RECA and got the health care the program includes,” Gutierrez said.
The organization that officially represents the interests of Trinity Downwinders is called the The Tularosa Basin Downwinders Association. According to Perea, the organization is actively working to get RECA amended to include those exposed to what happened on the edge of White Sands Missile Range, on a mid-summer’s morning just before sunrise, 75 years ago.
A couple summers ago, the co-founder of TBDC, Tina Cordova, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. She was emphatic in telling the Senators present that RECA should be amended to include the Trinity test and therefore make New Mexican downwinders eligible for fair compensation.
As this document is being written, the consortium is working to move the amended bill out of committee and onto the floor of the US House of Representatives. “There are only seven of us on the steering committee, and we are busy,” says Gutierrez.
Perea adds, “We have a number of governmental representatives, including the governor, on our side.” Gutierrez agrees, adding, “Congressman Ben Ray Lujan submitted an amendment to the House of Representatives. Senator [Tom] Udall has also [previously] submitted a similar amendment to the Senate. We’re waiting for the House to vote on the measure. All of our Congressional delegates are working on the issue this year.”
Listening to Perea and Gutierrez tell their personal stories seems to add to the urgency of their quest to be recognized and compensated by a federal government that, in the past, has done little to assist the hundreds of New Mexicans who lived downwind of Trinity and were affected by the first nuclear explosion on planet Earth.
Because the explosion was a ground burst, it was much more damaging to the surrounding area, says Gutierrez. “So many people were overexposed. They never did any environmental studies [afterwards] to our knowledge.”
“They didn’t test the ground. They didn’t test the water,” Perea tells our reporter.
Gutierrez adds some historical details to solemn effect, recalling that, “back then, in 1945, they grew their own food. They slaughtered their own animals for meat. The got water from local cisterns. All of that was contiminated by Trinity. Because of their natural lifestyles, their vegetables, their feed, their milk, everything was contaminated by fallout.”
Gutierrez further remembers that one time, the National Cancer Institute came to Tularosa and offered its residents Walmart gift cards in exchange for statements on their medical history. “The people who were interviewed were very upset with the NCI,” she says, “because they never asked about that day; they seemed interested in other things.”
Gutierrez and Perea are sisters, and they have a lot to say about medical histories in the area. They’ve seen most of the previous generation struggle with cancer; the sisters’ mother had thyroid, skin and breast cancer, Gutierrez revealed, as the discussion continued, recalling that all her aunts and uncles suffered similar fates. Additionally, their children continue to have signicant health issues, too. Gutierrez’ son recently needed a bone marrow transplant for a rare autoimmune disorder he suffers from. “My daughter has fibroid tumors and needed surgery this past summer,” Gutierrez further laments.
Yet, though the global proliferation of nuclear weapons continues to be a threat to humanity, there is hope for the Trinity Downwinders. Members of the consortium are hopeful that an engaged legislative branch will finally agree that they deserve access to the same federal benefits that former uranium miners in McKinley County, as well as those humans who lived downwind of the infamous Nevada Test Site, now use to help ameliorate a lingering nuclear-created problem.
In the meantime, the two sisters from Capitan, N.M.—one born just eight days before the test—urge supporters to join them at the consortium’s third annual benefit event, happening this weekend at the Hispanic Cultural Center. Lt. Governor Howie Morales is scheduled to speak and entertainment will be provided by the likes of Frank Chewiwie, Mariachi Flor De Alma, Paul Pino & The Tone Daddies and Hector Pimentel & Daniel Solis.