Congress passed a law decades ago to apologize to people who were exposed to radiation when the U.S. tested nuclear weapons. New Mexico’s never been included even though the first detonation of a nuclear bomb in human history happened right here in 1945.
Tina Cordova has been fighting to change that for years. She and the folks with the Tularosa Basin Downwinders want Congress to pass amendments to the law to cover New Mexico. She sat down with KUNM to talk about the group’s recent report documenting high rates of cancers and other illnesses around the Trinity Test site.
CORDOVA: When our Legislature in New Mexico is trying to balance a budget that is greatly impacted by the funding for Medicaid, everybody in the state Legislature and everybody in New Mexico should be listening to what I say. Because when people in parts of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Idaho are compensated and taken care of to the tune of, so far, $2 billion, we should all be standing up and saying, “You know what? We need the same treatment. We need to take care of these people when they get sick.”
What happens is that when people don’t have access to health care, which is the history of these rural communities, people discover that they have something wrong, and they put it off and they put it off, because they just can’t see a doctor. And then by the time they do become so sick and get themselves to a doctor, oftentimes it’s too late, and the outcomes for them are compromised.
KUNM: What are some of the effects of the Trinity test in New Mexico today?
CORDOVA: What we know is that there was most likely a very heavy exposure to the communities surrounding Trinity site and as a result of that, you know, radiation damages your genetics. It changes cell structure, and it leads to—for those people who were directly exposed—it can potentially lead to illness later in life like cancer, auto-immune diseases, etc. It’s not unusual for women to have children with birth defects associated with it, and there is a genetic component also, which means that people’s genetics are changed and that gets passed on from one generation to the other.
KUNM: Do you think these amendments will be hard to pass given the Republican majority in Congress? And do you think there could be potential pushback from the presidential administration?
CORDOVA: Historically, the people that have supported us through this effort are Democrats, but I will say that we have bipartisan support of the amendments that have been introduced. I really do believe that there is a bipartisan effort in place, and I believe that this is one of those issues where the Congress can actually, in a bipartisan way, work on something positive.
KUNM: According to the Health Impact Assessment you’ve released, the law should be amended to include an apology to New Mexico residents. Why does that matter?
CORDOVA: Because then people can start the healing process. You know, when we go into these communities, I have a certain number of people that tell me, "Tina, you’re wasting your time. The government’s never going to come back. They don’t care about us. We are forgotten victims. They care nothing about us.”
I mean I’ve had people cry on my shoulder and tell me “You don’t know what it has been like for my family.” And I tell them, “Oh yes I do. Because it’s happened to my family, too.”
KUNM: Do you have any concerns that because you’ve been an advocate on this issue that the study will be viewed as biased in some way?
CORDOVA: Well, we’re advocates and we’re activists. And the reason our study has complete and total credibility is because it was a supervised study through the grant process. There have been many of these Health Impact Assessments done—not just here in New Mexico, but throughout the country. And it was supervised by people who know very well how you conduct one of these studies.
We have the more than 800 health surveys. We have recorded focus groups where we asked people about their experiences. And we have the data to back this up.
It’s morally and ethically wrong that our government has looked the other way and has provided compensation for 27 years to other communities and has completely ignored the damage that was done to the people here in New Mexico.