ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Today, thousands of tourists make the semiannual pilgrimage to the middle of nowhere, where, nearly 73 years ago, night became day, J. Robert Oppenheimer became death and hell rumbled into the heavens.
This desolate spot in the aptly named Jornada del Muerto desert is the Trinity Site, open to the public twice a year, where the first atomic bomb was unleashed early July 16, 1945.
Only it wasn’t the middle of nowhere.
Tourists will likely not hear much about the thousands of New Mexicans who lived in the shadow of the mushroom cloud at Trinity, many of whom have died or struggled with bouts of cancer and disease they say are attributable to the bomb’s radiation that contaminated their communities.
But if these tourists stop outside the gates to Trinity Site, if they stop to chat with the people there holding protest signs, they’ll hear about the Tularosa Basin Downwinders.
They’ll hear from Tina Cordova.
“I talk to people from all over the world who come to see Trinity,” said Cordova, an Albuquerque businesswoman who grew up in Tularosa. “They often have not heard about what part we played in the process, how we were enlisted into the service of our country without our consent, without being acknowledged or compensated or cared for. They don’t hear our story on the inside. The government never tells the rest of the story.”
But, for 13 years, Cordova has. And she has told it in this column since 2010.
But the people she needs to listen to her and to act are in Washington, D.C. – and that has proven to be tougher than approaching folks outside the gates of the Trinity Site.
“We continue to wait,” she said. “And people continue to suffer.”
The story begins in Tularosa, her small hometown 45 miles from Trinity. As a child, she said it was hard to find a family for miles that had not been afflicted with thyroid cancer or other thyroid-related diseases, leukemia, brain tumors or autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and scleroderma.
Many in Cordova’s own family died from cancer; many others battled cancer, including her.
It was hard, she said, not to believe a link existed between the abnormally high number of illnesses in these communities and the long-term effects of radiation that had fallen in 1945 like snow, without warning or explanation, fouling water sources, the land, the vegetation, the livestock, and the livelihoods of residents then and the generations that have followed.
In 2005, she co-founded the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, which has collected hundreds of stories and more than 1,200 health surveys about death, disease and the bomb as told in town hall meetings, focus groups and scientific studies of residents who still suffer from the fallout.
In 2015 – 70 years after the Trinity Site blast – Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., became the first federal lawmaker to travel to Tularosa to listen to the residents’ stories. He backed a bill seeking to amend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, to include the downwinders of New Mexico so that they could receive compensation, just as the residents of Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Colorado, exposed to radiation from the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, do.
The bill went nowhere.
Last year, a revised bill was introduced, this one sponsored by Sen. Michael Crapo, R-Idaho, along with Udall and fellow New Mexico Democrat Sen. Martin Heinrich, among others.
Besides the New Mexico downwinders, this bill also seeks compensation for uranium miners in Idaho, Colorado and Montana.
The bill was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has twice scheduled Cordova and others to testify. Both times, the meetings have been canceled.
A similar bill in the House, sponsored by Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., and 36 cosponsors from both parties, also remains snagged.
Still, Cordova said she and the consortium are trying to raise enough money to send 10-12 of them to Washington to testify this summer before Congress, if given the chance.
“We’ve got the data, we’ve got the science, we’ve got the stories,” she said. “Now, we just need the time.”
Because, she said, time is running out. Although many of the people who lived in the shadow of the mushroom cloud are dead, the radiation aftermath continues, the diseases flourish, the need continues.
If you go to the Trinity Site today, and even if you don’t, I hope you hear that part of the story.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.