US executive branch acknowledges NM Downwinders for the first time

The brief meeting with Biden’s health secretary was ‘profound,’ group says

By: - September 8, 2022 5:00 am

The Trinity explosion, 16 milliseconds after detonation. The viewed hemisphere’s highest point in this image is about 660 ft. (Berlyn Brixner / Los Alamos National Laboratory / Public Domain)

A top official with President Joe Biden’s administration on Wednesday acknowledged the federal government’s role in sending cancer-causing dust into the lungs of thousands of New Mexico residents when it detonated the world’s first atomic bomb in 1945. 

The 15-minute meeting Wednesday morning was the first acknowledgement by the executive branch of the feds’ role in afflicting New Mexico’s Downwinders, said organizer Tina Cordova. Downwinders are residents who have for generations seen increased cancer and other illnesses from nuclear weapons testing at the Trinity Test Site about 35 miles south of Socorro.

“It was profound,” Cordova told Source New Mexico of the meeting. “When we heard that we were going to be included, we were ecstatic. And I will tell you that (the secretary) said from the very get-go: ‘I know your issue. I understand your issue. I’ve been briefed.’” 

Tina Cordova, founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, testifies before the U.S. Senate in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Tina Cordova)

Cordova, who is founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, and two other Downwinders met with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-Las Vegas) at a health clinic in Rio Rancho.

The short meeting occurred just before Becerra attended a roundtable on challenges facing rural health care providers here. Becerra told reporters he would “follow up” on the Downwinders’ concerns. 

“Every American is entitled to appropriate health care,” he said. “Every American is entitled to have the government respond to their needs, especially if those needs were created by the government.”

“Every American is entitled to have the government respond to their needs, especially if those needs were created by the government.”

– Xavier Becerra, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary

The Downwinders have hoped for federal recognition for decades, most recently when they unsuccessfully sought an audience with Biden during his visit to Santa Fe amid record-breaking wildfires. Until now, the only apology they’ve received came in the form of Congressional resolutions inserted into omnibus legislation, Cordova said — resolutions with no money attached.

“But there’s never been a standalone, executive-level acknowledgment issued to us like what we received today from Sec. Becerra,” she said. “I firmly believe he will never forget.”

It’s not clear exactly how Becerra’s acknowledgement will translate into compensation for the Downwinders, however. He promised to look for ways to make sure Biden is aware of the issue and to keep the Downwinders in mind, Cordova said, but only Congress has the power to approve a compensation plan for victims of the nuclear test.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, left, listens during a roundtable on rural healthcare on Sept. 7 in Rio Rancho, along with U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, to his left. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

Recently, Biden signed a bill that extended the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act for two years, but the act does not cover Downwinders like Cordova or members of her family. The extension enables Congress to tweak the bill to cover Downwinders and also uranium mineworkers in New Mexico, Leger Fernandez said Wednesday, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Cordova has kept a close eye on legislation introduced by Leger Fernandez and Sen. Ben Ray Lujan that would include Downwinders in RECA. But it hasn’t gotten a hearing yet, and her best guess is that it has a slim majority support in the United States Senate. (She expects it to easily clear the House.)

New Mexico Downwinders demand recognition, justice

She expects the bill would get approval of 54 senators, including four Republican senators, but she said she fears the bill needs 60 to avoid being filibustered. She expects opposition to come from a Republican senator concerned about the cost. 

Downwinders exposed in New Mexico would receive lump-sum payouts and medical benefits under the legislation. The sum was initially proposed to be $50,000, but Leger Fernandez’s bill would boost that to $150,000 and increase the types of cancers potentially covered. 

“We now know there are many other cancers that come as a result of either being a Downwinder or mining uranium,” Leger Fernandez told reporters Wednesday. 

The total cost to taxpayers hasn’t yet been established with an analysis from the Congressional Budget Office. The lack of a CBO score nine months after the legislation was introduced also has prevented it from being heard yet in either chamber. 

Whatever the cost to taxpayers, Cordova stressed it is far outweighed by the benefits to American citizens hurt by the federal government in its effort to build a nuclear weapon and is dwarfed by the hundreds of billions it has since spent in building and maintaining a nuclear arsenal.

“The cost of this bill is what (Republicans) obviously ask every time that we lobby for this bill. And again, our response is, ‘This is nominal,’” she said. “And we are the victims who were the collateral damage of our country’s quest for nuclear superiority. And we’ve not been acknowledged nor taken care of, and we’re American citizens.”

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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