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Tularosa downwinders press on with radiation claims

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It had been a beautifully organic way to live.

Residents of the tranquil Tularosa Basin in the 1940s feasted on figs, apples, peaches and plums grown in their irrigated orchards. They ate eggs from their own chickens. Meat came from the cows and pigs they raised and the elk and turkey they hunted. Three dairies in the area supplied fresh milk. Rainwater was caught in cisterns for gardening.

But everything changed when the first atomic bomb was unleashed without warning at the Trinity Site, about 40 miles upwind from the town of Tularosa, on July 16, 1945.

Tina Cordova

CORDOVA: Seeks compensation for Tularosa downwinders

No one knew just how much things had changed. No one had considered what effect the bomb’s significant radiation might have on the 19,000 people living in the shadow of the mushroom cloud, how that radiation might have seeped into the rainwater, the soil, the vegetation, the blood, the bone.

No one thought fresh milk might be poison.

“People down here started to get sick, started to die at alarming rates,” said Tina Cordova, an Albuquerque businesswoman born and raised in Tularosa. “And we knew it had to have been the bomb.”

We met Cordova in 2010 when her efforts to connect the 1945 atomic bomb test to the abnormally high rate of cancer she discovered among the residents downwind of the Trinity Site seemed close to bringing relief, recognition and a long-overdue apology from the U.S. government.

Three years later, relief, recognition and apology have yet to materialize.

Still, Cordova is hopeful. Big apologies for big mistakes, she is learning, take time.

“I’ve been told we need to be patient,” she said. “Well, we have been patient for 69 years.”

A bipartisan congressional group remains committed to pushing companion amendments to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act that would include Trinity downwinders.

Previous bills have failed to make their way out of committee or to a hearing.

Also, the National Cancer Institute has announced it will send researchers to New Mexico this year to conduct an extensive study of the health effects of the Trinity blast.

Cordova said she expects the study will provide scientific evidence to what she and others have been saying about the effects of the bomb’s radiation that was thrust upon the downwinders without their knowledge or consideration.

“We were unwilling, unknowing and uncompensated participants in this,” she said. “We were guinea pigs in the world’s largest science experiment.”

It’s been a long slog for Cordova. In 2005, she and Fred Tyler, also of Tularosa, formed the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, which gathered stories about the community’s experiences of death and disease after the bomb blast.

Their work was incorporated into the Los Alamos Historical Document and Retrieval and Assessment Project, or LAHDRA, a $10 million, 10-year project of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate the effects of direct and indirect exposure of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing from Los Alamos, including the Trinity test.

In 2010, LAHDRA released its report, concluding that earlier evaluations of the effects of public radiation exposure shortly after the bomb blast were incomplete, partly because of the lack of understanding of how and what to test and the lack of appropriate equipment to test with.

The report is the catalyst for the National Cancer Institute’s planned study, which researchers say will especially focus on the diets and lifestyles of people who were children when the bomb blew. The Consortium and Las Mujeres Hablan, a northern New Mexico nonprofit dedicated to nuclear disarmament, will be involved in the study.

Back in 2010, Cordova said it was hard to find anyone living within a 40-mile radius of the Trinity site who hadn’t known someone stricken with cancer. Six members of her own family had either died of or fought cancer, including herself and her father, who was 3 when the bomb turned the dark skies white and radioactive ash fell from the skies like snow.

Today, Cordova is a 16-year survivor of thyroid cancer. Her father successfully battled two forms of cancer in the past decade but lost his third bout last spring at age 71. As a child, he had loved milk and drank ample quantities, never imagining what it might contain, Cordova said.

“It’s awful to think that, because of the radiation, the organic lifestyle my father and others like him enjoyed had overexposed them,” she said.

Cordova can no longer quickly calculate how many family members have died of cancer, how many in the Tularosa Basin have suffered. There have been so many.

“When you’re from a small community and everyone is sick and dying, you know there’s a problem,” she said. “We should all be outraged.”

They should all receive an apology, at the very least. They’ve waited long enough.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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