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Senators, representative working on providing help for downwinders

Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Downwinders Consortium, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., in 2018. (Source: Senate Judiciary Committee Video)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium has been waging a yearslong battle to see that victims of the first atomic bomb blast receive compensation for the illnesses and suffering it believes were caused by the fallout from the explosion.

Group members would like to see the downwinders of the Trinity test on July 16, 1945, on what is now White Sands Missile Range in eastern Socorro County, included in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, which compensates residents of Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Colorado who were exposed to radiation from the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. Legislation to do just that has been sponsored through the years by Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, as well as Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who introduced a bill this year on the anniversary of the Trinity test in July. The legislation would cover victims in New Mexico and Indian Country, including the post-1971 uranium workers and the Tularosa downwinders.

“We just can’t seem to get the bills on the agenda for a vote,” said Tina Cordova, one of the founders of the organization.

Udall said the legislation has bipartisan support.

“A number of Republicans have signed on to the bill,” the senator said.

He said the legislation will be discussed at a field hearing Monday at the Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque. Luján and Rep. Deb Haaland are also expected to attend the hearing, which will address the effects of radiation exposure in Indian Country and New Mexico.

The consortium raised awareness of the suffering victims and family members have experienced through the years in a series of protests Friday and Saturday at National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque and gates at White Sands Missile Range, which lead to Trinity Site, where the first atomic blast took place nearly 75 years ago. Trinity Site was open to the public for only the second time this year on Saturday.

Members of the group testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. They’ve encouraged members of the Tularosa, Socorro and Carizozo communities to participate in health surveys to document proof of cancers and other radiation-related illnesses they feel are linked to the fallout from the Trinity test.

Cordova is concerned the impeachment proceedings initiated by the House against President Donald Trump could move the effort off Congress’ radar.

In an interview on another issue, Heinrich told the Journal he was not sure how the impeachment proceedings would affect legislation.

“We’re entering new territory,” the senator said.

SPENDING BILLS ON THE AGENDA: Members of the New Mexico delegation have been crisscrossing the state over the past few days with Congress on break, but things will pick back up next week. There are a few bills out there that have not been voted on that infolve millions of dollars for military bases, national labs and public lands in New Mexico.

The National Defense Appropriations Act is among them. Different versions have passed both chambers, but final approval is yet to come.

“It’s in active negotiations in conference,” Heinrich said. “A lot of the low-hanging fruit has been worked through. We’re just trying to work through some of the differences between the House and Senate bills.”

The senator said he felt good about projects involving New Mexico, such as funding for the helicopter simulator at Kirtland Air Force Base.

“I think it’s because we’ve coordinated ahead of time with our House members on the HAS (House Armed Services Committee) and myself on the SAS (Senate Armed Services Committee). We were all working the same projects. Usually if we keep the same language in the House and Senate version, your odds of getting it in the final version are north of 98%. I feel pretty good about where we are right now.”

Included in versions that are being worked through are provisions for cleaning up PFAS contamination at military bases such as Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis and Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo; requirements for the jet fuel spill cleanup at Kirtland Air Force Base; funding for workforce training for the national laboratories; and requirements for military housing.

Scott Turner: sturner@abqjournal.com

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