May 26, 2024 - Politics & Policy

House faces deadline on helping Trinity Test atomic bomb victims

Paul Pino, a downwider from Carrizozo, N.M., protests outside the Trinty Test site.

Paul Pino, a Trinity Test downwider from Carrizozo, N.M., protests outside the Trinity Test site as tourists travel to visit it. Photo: Courtesy of 47th State Films

The Republican-controlled U.S. House has just a few days to vote on a bipartisan Senate bill that would expand compensation for victims of the Trinity Test — the world's first atomic explosion.

Why it matters: A federal law, which awards financial reparations to people who lived downwind of nuclear testing sites, will expire June 7, and people in New Mexico near where the Trinity Test occurred aren't included.

  • If the law isn't extended and expanded to include Trinity Test victims and those injured in uranium mines on the Navajo Nation, those victims may never be compensated for generations of health problems.
  • The race to extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) is a dramatic finish for downwinder activists in New Mexico, who have been trying to get Congress to act for decades.

Catch up quick: The federal law passed by Congress in 1990 awards financial reparations to Nevada Test Site downwinders. Uranium workers in other states were later added, but New Mexico and Navajo Nation residents were excluded.

  • Activists since have uncovered families in St. Louis and St. Charles, Missouri, who have been affected by radioactive waste.
  • Intensive lobbying prompted Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) to push through bipartisan legislation in March. Hawley has become one of the most outspoken and emotional supporters.
  • Renewed interest in the Trinity Test stemming from last summer's Oscar-winning movie "Oppenheimer" helped draw attention to the Latino and Mescalero Apache residents who lived near the explosion.

What they're saying: "This isn't about a handout. This isn't about some kind of welfare program. This is about doing basic justice by the working people of this nation, whom their own government has poisoned," Hawley said after the passage.

  • "This was a harm inflicted by the federal government, and it is the federal government's responsibility to fix it. Bottom line," Rep. Gabe Vasquez (D-N.M.), who represents the area where the Trinity Test occurred, said at a press conference urging the House to act.

After last week's press conference, House Speaker Johnson released a statement that gave some downwinders hope.

  • "The Speaker understands and appreciates Sen. Hawley's position and is working closely with interested members and stakeholders to chart a path forward for the House."
  • Some Republican House members have suggested the $50 billion or so needed for the expansion was too costly.
Henry Herrera describes seeing the Trinity Test explosion from his parents' Tularosa home in 1945.
Henry Herrera describes in September 2021 seeing the Trinity Test explosion from his parents' Tularosa, N.M., home in 1945. He died in January 2022 at age 87 following long bouts with rare cancers. Photo: Russell Contreras/Axios

Yes, but: Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, tells Axios the cost of the Trinity Test and other nuclear tests has been passed to American citizens who never asked to be guinea pigs.

Background: On July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert, the U.S. Army detonated an atomic bomb developed at the then-secret community of Los Alamos.

  • The bomb knocked people from breakfast tables in the historic Hispanic village of Tularosa and sent Mescalero Apache Reservation residents into hiding.
  • Residents reported black rain and burned cows that passed on radiation poisoning through milk to unsuspecting residents.
  • No one told residents of the site's dangers, and they often picnicked there and took artifacts, including the radioactive green glass known as "trinitite."

Zoom out: The New Mexico residents only learned about the Trinity Test after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

  • The bomb's aftermath later caused rare forms of cancer for many of the 30,000 residents and their descendants in the area surrounding Trinity.
  • Poor residents held bake sales to pay for cancer treatments.

What we're watching: Congress has just a handful of working days left before the RECA, but a full House vote is expected to be close.

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