Jul 19, 2015 by

The deadly legacy of nuclear tests in New Mexico continues to impact communities around the White Sands site

This is the first in a series of stories by Al Jazeera America commemorating the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

SAN ANTONIO, New Mexico – The explosion was seen nearly 200 miles away, the shock waves felt practically 100 miles away, and 70 years later, America’s first atomic bomb test – codenamed Trinity – still reverberates in the tiny towns and secluded hamlets that ring the edges of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Richard Lopez’s farm sits in a verdant valley at the feet of the Magdalena Mountains and 17 miles from ground zero. He believes radiation from the nuclear test permeated the area, contributing to the lymphoma he fought and won.

“We raised a lot of vegetables, we do a lot of that,” he said. “But once I got the cancer, I quit the vegetable part.”

His illness shattered his life. “I had co-pays that were sometimes $1,400 a day,” said Lopez. “Anything extra that the farm didn’t need, we sold. We sold our trucks, we sold some equipment, we sold extra cows we didn’t want to sell.”

And he’s not the only one.

There’s Rosemary Cordova, whose son Danny lost his left eye after undergoing four major brain surgeries for cancer; Henry Herrera, who saw the blast and must now make regular trips to Albuquerque for cancer treatment; Edna Hinkle, who submitted over $300,000 in claims to her insurance company for chemotherapy; and thousands of other New Mexicans known as “downwinders.”

New Mexicans and their families who lived downwind of the Trinity fallout zone say the U.S. government should be held accountable for poor health, high rates of cancer, and early death like downwinders at other nuclear sites in Utah, Nevada and Arizona. However, with little to no medical proof definitively linking their illnesses and the blast, a rapidly aging and dying population, and little support from Congress, the hope for compensation, or even an apology, may take another generation to materialize.

Atomic bomb

This Oct. 15, 1965 photo shows a ‘Fat Man’ nuclear bomb of the type tested at Trinity Site, N.M.

Their story began exactly 70 years ago. On the early morning of July 16, 1945, there was a bright flash and massive explosion at the Alamagordo Air Base at White Sands. The first test of an atomic weapon had occurred. However, officials were quick to cover up what had happened. The Associated Press reported that “a remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded.”

The AP also reported that “weather conditions affecting the content of the gas shells exploded by the blast may make it desirable for the Army to temporarily evacuate a few civilians from their homes.”

According to a Centers for Disease Control report, those civilians were never warned nor evacuated. Many locals reported “a white substance like flour” that fell for days. The night after the test, it rained; the water was collected in cisterns by locals and consumed later on.

“There have been plenty of people who’ve said: ‘why didn’t you move away?’” said Tina Cordova, a cofounder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. “We didn’t know, first of all, we were at risk of anything. And by the time we knew were all so overexposed.”

Cordova is recovering from thyroid cancer and says her father passed away nearly two years ago after a long cancer battle that ended with heavy facial surgery.

“When I saw my dad that first night, after they did the eight-hour surgery to remove part of his tongue and all of his lymph nodes, I had to sort of run out of the room,” said Cordova. “I could not take the horror of it all.”

Cordova has been conducting surveys and compiling the medical histories of every downwinder she can find. The file is huge.

“We have hundreds of these health surveys that people have filled out,” said Cordova. “Someday this is all going to be our case history for why we know we have been affected by the radiation exposure from the Trinity test.”

‘When I saw my dad that first night, after they did the eight-hour surgery to remove part of his tongue and all of his lymph nodes, I had to sort of run out of the room. I could not take the horror of it all.’

Tina Cordova

Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium

Under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) of 1990, uranium mill workers, miners, transporters, and on-site workers in states across the West are all eligible for compensation. In Nevada, Utah and Arizona, downwinders and on-site workers at nuclear test sites — including those working at White Sands Missile Range — are also eligible. However, New Mexican downwinders are not covered. They hope New Mexico Senator Tom Udall will make it right.

“New Mexicans have been left out for a long time,” Udall said. “We hope there will be a situation where justice comes to this case and people be compensated and they will get that apology from the United States of America.”

Udall’s plan is simple: amend RECA by expanding the coverage area and broadening who is eligible for compensation. But with the government already running an RECA tab of nearly $2 billion, adding more money to the act has proven to be difficult. Udall has put forward the amendment seven times already, with no success.

“The thing you have to do with legislation, when you know there is an injustice, you never give up, you keep fighting,” Udall said. “The issue is getting it through the relevant committees and getting it on the president’s desk, and that sometimes is a tough task.”


Visitors to White Sands Missile Park outside Las Cruces, New Mexico, check out a Hound Dog supersonic Cold War missile that could be launched from a B-52 and carry a nuclear warhead, April 3, 2015.
Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Another hurdle is finding a definitive link between the nuclear test and cancer rates in the area. According to Charles Wiggins of the New Mexico Tumor Registry, cancer is prevalent in the area near White Sands. But the problem is that it’s equally prevalent across the rest of New Mexico.

“To date it looks quite a bit to us that the rates in central New Mexico really are quite consistent with the rates in other parts of the state,” said Wiggins. “There is a lot of cancer everywhere in New Mexico.”

That makes it hard to draw firm conclusions. However, residents in other states who lived near test sites never had high burdens of proof: if they got certain cancers, they were covered under the law. New Mexicans hope to be treated equally.

“People don’t believe us,” said Cordova. “I don’t think people understand what it means until you come into the community and you hear the people talk about it.”

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is working to reconstruct radiation exposure levels of Trinity downwinders by studying the diet and lifestyle of New Mexicans in 1945. In a brief emailed statement, NCI said their “researchers are developing the protocol for the next phase of the effort. Scientific reviews are in progress.” But the clock is ticking: 70 years after Trinity, the community is very old now. New Mexicans like Lopez, who say their lives and livelihoods have been irreversibly interrupted by America’s nuclear past, may never see relief.

“I am not doing it for compensation,” he said. “If there’s compensation, fine, but I just want to get people aware that we do have a problem in this area.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *