Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
WASHINGTON – A grass-roots effort years in the making cleared an important hurdle Wednesday when advocates for New Mexicans sickened by uranium mining and nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War finally received a formal hearing in Congress.
Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez and Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, were among those who told the Senate Judiciary Committee stories of hardship, illness and death suffered by New Mexicans and other residents of the western U.S. from radiation during the Cold War and beyond. Similar hearings had been postponed at least twice.
The Senate is now considering a bill to expand eligibility for payouts under the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act of 1990. The expansion legislation, sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., would compensate victims and their families living near the Trinity test site in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin and post-1971 uranium mine workers in Northwestern New Mexico.
On Wednesday, Udall, who has been pushing his RECA expansion bill for more than a decade, urged his colleagues to finally act. He said the U.S. government misled people living in the Tularosa Basin near White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico about the effects of nuclear testing at the Trinity test site.
Advocates for the so-called downwinders contend that thousands were sickened with cancer and other illnesses by radiation that wafted over their communities after the blast. Nez also noted that Navajo uranium miners in Northwestern New Mexico were sickened by radiation.
“The government was intimately involved in all of it,” Udall told the Judiciary Committee. “We did not have the mining of uranium until the federal government said we’re going to build bombs, and then they exploded the bombs aboveground.
“Government doctors told them, ‘It’s all fine – don’t worry.’ These are real Cold War victims. We need to bring justice to this.”
The bill has limited backing in Congress, with six co-sponsors, including Sen. Corey Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who announced his support to applause during Wednesday’s hearing, and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. Two Republicans – Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch – are also co-sponsoring the bill. Idahoans are among those who were sickened by nuclear testing.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., has introduced a companion bill in the House.
Cordova was among numerous New Mexicans in the hearing audience Wednesday. 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.
“This radioactive fallout settled on everything – on the soil, in the water, in the air, on the plants, and on the skin of every living thing, both human and animal,” Cordova told the committee. “There is an urgent moral and ethical imperative to right this wrong. There is a path to healing for us. It starts with the recognition of our service and our sacrifice and is complete when we are afforded the exact same care as other downwinders.”
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham emailed a statement expressing support for compensating radiation victims.
“Countless New Mexicans have suffered for too long, and I will continue to do everything I can to enact Rep. Luján’s Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments (H.R. 2049) into law and permanently fix this clear injustice,” she said.
The RECA fund has already paid out more than $2 billion.
Anyone who was unable to directly participate in the hearing can submit testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee by next Thursday. There was no vote on the legislation Wednesday, but Udall’s office said he has requested one.