'Slap in the Face': Victims of Trinity Test Radiation Say Congress Again Let Them Down by Denying Compensation

Scientists and other workers rig the world's first atomic bomb.
Scientists and other workers rig the world's first atomic bomb to raise it up onto a 100-foot tower at the Trinity Test Site near Alamogordo, New Mexico. (AP Photo/File )

New Mexico was ground zero for the world's first atom bomb explosion, but the "downwinder" farmers and ranchers living near the Trinity test site, and the Navajo miners who dug the uranium used in the blast, have once again been shut out for fallout compensation by Congress.

The Senate and House Armed Services Committees' voluminous conference report released Thursday on the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act stripped out an amendment that would have for the first time included eligible New Mexicans for relief under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA.

The amendment to extend and expand RECA coverage will now sunset in 2024 unless the House and Senate find time to reverse course, which is considered unlikely given the current congressional impasse over Ukraine and Israel aid, and southern border security issues.

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For RECA advocates in New Mexico, the failure of Congress to include the amendment in the NDAA fit a pattern of neglect and deceit by their government going back generations during the development of nuclear weapons.

The lying began just hours after the Manhattan Project device called the "gadget," assembled atop a 100-foot tower in the Tularosa Basin by J. Robert Oppenheimer and his band of fractious scientists, went off in the early morning of July 16, 1945, in a blinding fireball that lit up the early morning skies 160 miles away.

The farmers and ranchers, some of whom lived just 13 miles from the blast site, were never warned of what was about to happen and then were given a not-to-worry statement from the commanding officer of the Alamogordo Army Air Field:

"Several inquiries have been received concerning a heavy explosion which occurred on the Alamogordo air base reservation this morning," the statement said. "A remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded. There was no loss of life or injury to anyone, and the property damage outside of the explosives magazine was negligible."

New Mexicans and the entire nation were not told that the nuclear weapons age had begun in the Jornada del Muerto desert until after the B-29 Superfortress named the Enola Gay dropped the "Little Boy" atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.

Once the Oppenheimer crew set off the "gadget," radioactive fallout descended to the northeast over an area about 250 miles long and 200 miles wide. Scientists tracked part of the fallout pattern as far as the Atlantic Ocean, according to a National Park Service release from the Manhattan Project National Historical Park in New Mexico.

In New Mexico, "radiation landed on vegetables and cattle and contaminated the water supply. Many people in rural New Mexico lacked running water and collected rainwater that ran off of roofs in large cisterns, or holding tanks," the NPS said. "Most locals also grew most of their own food and raised livestock for meat. Eating foods with high levels of radiation has been linked to cancer, stillbirth and birth defects."

Phil Harrison, who followed his father into the uranium mines in Arizona and Colorado and now lives in New Mexico, said there was little doubt that the Manhattan Project scientists knew of the dangers from the fallout of a nuclear test, and he called the failure to extend and expand RECA "a slap in the face by the federal government."

"We were all real excited" when the amendment to the NDAA was introduced, Harrison said in a phone interview. "All we were asking from the government was to correct the wrongs of the past."

His father, who died of lung cancer, was never told of the hazards of working in the uranium mines or the need for masks and other safety equipment, and neither was he, said Harrison, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and a founder of the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee. Harrison said all he was told by the boss when he was hired to work in the mines was, "Boy, here's a shovel."

By stripping the amendment from the NDAA, the nation was showing that "we don't have the political will to do the right thing," Tina Cordova, executive director of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, said in a phone interview. "This is not our country's finest hour."

"We were the first people exposed to the atom bomb and we were left out" of the compensation packages available to other victims of the more than 200 above-ground nuclear tests conducted by the U.S., mostly in Nevada, Cordova said.

"It's just mind-blowing; it's beyond belief," she said.

In a statement Thursday, Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., who introduced the RECA amendment in July and won a 61-vote Senate majority, said that, "Generations of New Mexicans and their families have gotten sick and died from the radiation exposure and the lasting impacts of the Trinity Test. For New Mexico to have been ground zero for the first nuclear weapon, and left out of the original RECA program, is an injustice."

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., backed the Lujan amendment to include expanded coverage for the St. Louis area following collaborative reports by The Associated Press, The Missouri Independent and the nonprofit newsroom MuckRock on nuclear waste dumping in the St. Louis area dating back to the atomic tests of the 1940s.

In a Senate floor speech Thursday, Hawley said that the amendment amounted to a recognition of responsibility and "an apology to those who were exposed to contamination" from the nuclear waste dumped in Missouri from the "government's Oppenheimer-era nuclear program."

"Congress is effectively rescinding that apology" by stripping the amendment from the NDAA, Hawley said. "Those who should be compensated will now get nothing."

Both Lujan and Hawley said they would continue to press for the extension and expansion of the RECA legislation, but it was not clear what avenues were open to them.

"Despite bipartisan support, Republican leadership blocked the inclusion of this critical provision in the NDAA," Lujan said in his statement. "But I am not giving up on justice for New Mexicans and all those deeply impacted by radiation exposure and nuclear testing. Over the course of this process, our support has only grown and the fight doesn't end here."

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