Downwinders continue their fight for compensation
Downwinders want the public to be aware of the toll on local families who were exposed to radiation in the first atomic bomb test
Two times each year when the Trinity Site is opened to the public, members of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium show up with signs to remind people that many victims were produced in New Mexico from the explosion of the first plutonium-based atomic bomb that released 19 kilotons of power and vaporized sand.
Laura Greenwood and others were at the site last weekend for the first of the annual tours. Greenwood contends her husband and other members of his family who lived in the test area and died from cancer were among those victims.
“He was the thirteenth member of his family to die of cancer,” she said this week. Although she now lives in Brady, Texas, about a year after her husband’s death in 2012, she heard about the Downwinders group.
Stories from unsuspecting members of ranching families exposed to the effects of the blast have been repeated over the years, describing the glow of the explosion on July 16, 1945, that shattered windows more than 100 miles away and of coming out the next morning to find white cattle. When a rancher reached out to brush away what he thought might be ash, his cow’s hair fell off with the swipe of his hand.
The bomb later was used to decimate two cities in Japan leading to the surrender of the nation that attacked the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor in 1941. But on that day in 1945, it dispersed radioactive plutonium into the atmosphere damaging soil, water, plants, animals and humans, the Downwinder contend. The public health impact of that test never was assessed, but that has changed Greenwood said with the release year of “Unknowing, Unwilling and Uncompensated: The Effects of the Trinity Test on New Mexicans and the Potential Benefits of a Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendment.” The study contains the Health Impact Assessment overview based in part on surveys
The 2017 revised report is supported by a grant from the New Mexico Health Equity Partnership, an initiative at the Santa Fe Community Foundation and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. The primary author is Myrriah Gomez, Ph.D. Contributing authors are Dr. Maureen Merritt MD, an occupational healthcare consultant to industry and Native American tribes; Joseph Shonka, Ph.D., nuclear researcher; Joni Arends, co-founder and executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety; and Tina Cordova, founding member of the Tularosa Downwinders.
In the executive summary, the author wrote that in southern New Mexico, four counties primarily were affected, evidenced by the high cancer rates and other illnesses such as thyroid disease. Those counties are Lincoln, Otero, Sierra and Socorro. At particular risk were those living within 150 miles of the test site and those who ate exposed animals or drank milk from animals exposed to the fallout. The Health Impact Assessment analyzed the long-term health impacts of the Trinity test and considered ways that passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act amendments could affect the health of New Mexicans.
Recently, Senate Bill 197 was introduced to amend the act to improve compensation for workers involved in uranium mining and for other purposes. Besides showing up for the Trinity Site tours, Greenwood said she is working with the staff of a United States senator to urge congress to pass that amendment. In line with promoting the passage of the bill, she’s handing out cards to be mailed to U.S. Sen. Ernest “Chuck” Grassley from Iowa as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Each year, beside the Downwinders coming to the tour site where the nation’s first atomic bomb was exploded, the group also arranges a field trip for students to learn about the Manhattan Project, this year the group is from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, Greenwood said.
Downwinders point out that the United States government did not warn or evacuate nearby residents before or after the test, the world’s largest science experiment. While the RECA was passed in 1990 to compensate those living downwind from the Nevada Nuclear Test Site as well as many other groups, out of $2 billion paid under the fund in reparations to downwinders in parts of Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Colorado. None of the dollars went to compensate affected New Mexicans.