Waiting on Justice

NM downwinders and advocates push US House for action

Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer may have won seven awards, including best picture, at this year’s Oscars, but the movie remains a “sore subject” for Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, which represents New Mexicans sickened as a result of both the 1945 Trinity Test and the state’s uranium mining industry.

“They don’t mention any part of our history, and they don’t mention any part that we played in the whole Manhattan Project and Trinity test,” Cordova tells SFR about the movie. “We’re the people that did all the hard work. We did the heavy lifting, and they don’t mention us at all. I often tell people, ‘They don’t even show one of us pumping gas.’”

Moreover, Cordova says she knows the film’s producers were approached and provided information about the state’s downwinders and expressed no interest in that part of the story. “So, for me, when they came here and established the Manhattan Project and…tested the Trinity bomb, they invaded our lands and our lives and they destroyed our environment and they left. Well, when they came here to film Oppenheimer, it was a similar invasion. They can’t even mention New Mexico when they get the Academy Award for cinematography. They can’t say, ‘New Mexico is this vast, beautiful state with a ready-made workforce that made this possible?’”

Cordova, a cancer survivor, spoke to SFR just before heading to Washington, DC for a film festival featuring another film about the Trinity Test, Lois Lipman’s First We Bombed New Mexico, which features Cordova’s years of fighting for New Mexico’s victims’ inclusion under the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

That fight continues. In early March, the US Senate passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, both extending the bill’s expiration date and deadlines for claims and allowing for the first-time compensation for New Mexico’s victims.

Cordova was in DC then as well, as the guest of US Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-NM, for the State of the Union, also the anniversary of her father’s death from cancer.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to be gone on that day,” she says. “But being invited to the State of the Union is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I honestly finally got straight in my head that I can be here in Albuquerque miserable about my dad’s passing, or I could be in DC lobbying and talking to people and spreading the word. Little did we know that the vote was going to take place that day.”

The Senate passed RECA legislation last summer as well, but it was subsequently stripped out of the annual defense bill at the end of the year.

The bill now must be taken up by the US House before it expires on June 7. President Joe Biden’s administration has also expressed support for the bill.

Luján, one of the bill’s Senate sponsors, has introduced legislation to expand RECA in every Congress since he was first elected to the US House in 2008. He’s been working with Cordova since then on the issue, which strikes home for him as well. His father, longtime New Mexico House Speaker Ben Luján, died in 2012 from lung cancer after decades of working as an ironworker at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and believed his exposure to asbestos and other elements contributed to his disease. Hearing stories from Trinity downwinders, from uranium mining survivors and from those hurt by the Church Rock uranium mine spill “resonated,” Luján says. “Through no fault of their own, they were exposed there, their lives were taken, they were left to suffer with cancer or other physical ailments… It just was not right. It didn’t sit well with me.”

Luján says as the years unfolded, he “learned more and more and more about what had happened not just in New Mexico but in other parts of the country.” A bipartisan coalition grew from there. In addition to Luján and US Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM, sponsoring the recently passed RECA bill, Republicans Mike Crapo and Josh Hawley, of Idaho and Missouri, respectively, also backed the bill, among others.

Luján hasn’t seen all of Oppenheimer, as it happens. “I’ve watched a portion of it,” he tells SFR. “I was concerned that so much of the story that should have been told about these families in these communities was left out,” he says. “I don’t know why it was left out. I mean, it’s a long movie.”

US Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-NM, saw the movie and ahead of the Oscars presented on the House floor an award to Oppenheimer for “the most incomplete story.” Leger Fernández brought Phil Harrison, (Diné), a former uranium miner suffering from radiation exposure as her guest to the SOTU.

Leger Fernández tells SFR Democrat leadership in the House supports the bill. “We know that it’s up to the Republican leadership,” she says, but at the same time there exists a bipartisan coalition of people who “share a great injustice” from the fall-out from the nuclear industry. “I’ve sat and cried with the people from Missouri,” she says, “with the people from Idaho.”

Backers are looking for a larger package in which to place RECA, she says, to give it its best shot, but will introduce it as a stand-alone if needed. “And hopefully with the kind of coalition we have now, which I think is stronger than it’s ever been…we will get something,” Leger Fernández says. “I can tell you we are not giving up.”

The clock is definitely ticking, Lilly Adams, senior outreach coordinator for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program, tells SFR. When the House returns April 9, she says, they will only be in session for 28 days before RECA expires. Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana, however, did recently indicate general support for bringing forward the bill (The Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium’s website has quick links to contact Johnson and Congress to urge them to bring RECA up for a vote).

Adams says while New Mexico’s victims’ exclusion from RECA has always seemed like an “incomprehensible oversight,” the coalition of people across the country hurt by nuclear weapons testing has found its strength by standing together seeking justice.

“This coalition hasn’t taken the stance of, ‘My community is more deserving than yours,’” she says, but has instead put forward the message: “‘We are all in this together. We’re all fighting together.’”

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