‘We’ve never been this close before,’ Downwinders cheer RECA amendment in defense bill

Bill still faces a reconciliation with the House and a final vote from both chambers, but advocates are hopeful.

By: - July 28, 2023 4:05 am

Lit luminarias at a vigil for people who have died from cancer in the Tularosa Basin. The vigil was marked the 78th anniversary of the Trinity test, which subjected New Mexicans to the first atomic exposing and radioactive fallout. (Danielle Prokop / Source NM)

An amendment to extend a federal fund for victims of radiation exposure, and expand who it covers passed the Senate with 61 votes on Thursday afternoon.

Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Sen. Crapo (R-Idaho) added an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which earmarks more than $800 billion for military and defense programs.

This is a big step for New Mexico communities seeking inclusion in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act – nicknamed RECA – including those exposed from the first atomic explosion in the Tularosa Basin, or others in uranium mining and milling.

Not a done deal yet

The bill still needs to make it through a conference with the House, and reconciled legislation faces a final vote by both chambers.

Ensuring the amendment stays in place in the defense bill will take “a lot of strategic work” to pass with Republican leadership, said Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández in an interview with Source NM.

“We will be making the case that now is the time to do justice for New Mexicans, miners, Downwinders and Downwinders in other parts of the country who have not received compensation,” she said.

‘People have been dying ever since’: Anger mixes with hope for NM Downwinders

Luján celebrated the amendment’s passage in a written statement, calling it the “most significant vote” on RECA since it was enacted in 1990.

“While this important vote passed, this fight is not over. I will continue working with my colleagues and advocates to ensure that the House follows our lead and does what is right by Downwinders and uranium mine workers,” Luján wrote.

Waiting for justice

RECA offers payment and apology for exposing workers and the public to radiation during decades of aboveground tests. It paid out one-time funds to people with certain illnesses, or their families, who lived in certain locations or in certain jobs.

The fund was limited to a handful of counties in Utah, Nevada and Arizona surrounding the Nevada above-ground nuclear test sites.

This was despite the fact that more people were exposed “downwind” in states and counties not covered by the federal fund.

That program, scheduled to close off in 2024, will extend for another 19 years if the new amendment passes.

Under the congressional proposal, RECA expands to include Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Guam. It also expands to cover uranium miners who were working until 1990, instead of limiting coverage to 1971 and earlier.

The amendment would allow payments to people and descendants in parts of St. Louis County which was contaminated by nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project.

New Mexicans exposed to radiation from the first nuclear blast at Trinity will now be included, more than 78 years since the blast.

Tina Cordova, founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, who has fought for years for RECA inclusion, was close to tears in an interview with Source NM.

“I’m still in shock,” she said, reacting to the passage of the amendment.

Her group represents communities around Southern New Mexico seeking justice and recognition from the federal government after radiation exposure from the Trinity test site contaminated water and food sources.

Cordova credited the work of Luján Leger Fernández, adding that national exposure from the movie “Oppenheimer,” seems to be pushing national attention to New Mexico’s Downwinders.

“I think that I think we’re at that place now where we might see success finally. I never envisioned it quite like this,” she said.

Cordova said she hadn’t wanted to “get her hopes up,” about the amendment, but said justice and recognition are closer than they have ever been.

“We’re not there yet, but we’ve never been this close before,” she said.



Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Danielle Prokop
Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop covers the environment and local government in Southern New Mexico for Source NM. Her coverage has delved into climate crisis on the Rio Grande, water litigation and health impacts from pollution. She is based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.