The Trinity downwinders and New Mexico mine workers who remain unrecognized

In New Mexico, Trinity Test site neighbors weren’t warned or evacuated before the U.S. government detonated the atomic bomb in 1945. The light was so bright it could be seen hundreds of miles away. Nearly half a million people resided within a 150-mile radius of the blast. Witnesses said ash rained down for days. 

Cancers, diseases, early deaths, infant mortality and more have plagued people in New Mexico ever since the United States government set off the bomb in the Jornada del Muerto. But despite organizing and advocacy for well over a decade, they were neither recognized nor compensated. 

All of that could have finally changed last year, as Congress considered an expansion of the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act with bipartisan support. New Mexico advocates said a victory after so many years of work never felt more possible. But during last-minute negotiations over defense spending, relief for people in New Mexico and potentially tens of thousands of others nationwide was unceremoniously nixed from the legislation. 

“I think it’s shockingly immoral that Congress believes the U.S. government can harm citizens and basically walk away from any responsibility,” said Tina Cordova, the founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium.

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No warnings, no evacuations, no information

RECA was approved by Congress in 1990 as a form of apology, according to the Department of Justice, and as a means of paying families exposed to radiation when uranium for nuclear weapons was mined and milled, or when those weapons were tested. 

But it wasn’t created without prompting, the DOJ acknowledges. It was Navajo uranium miners and people living downwind of the Nevada Test Site who spurred the creation of the RECA fund. They’d been fighting for their families and communities in courts after being exposed to so much radiation and suffering its effects — cancers, lung diseases and early deaths.

Trinity downwinders were not covered by RECA.

A 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report confirms: “New Mexico residents were neither warned before the 1945 Trinity blast, informed of health hazards afterward, nor evacuated before, during, or after the test. Exposure rates in public areas from the world’s first nuclear explosion were measured at levels 10,000-times higher than currently allowed.”

Declassified documents show that in the days immediately following the blast, Manhattan Project planners realized the fallout radius was much larger and more dangerous than they’d expected. 

Though some New Mexico downwinders developed cancers years or decades later, other impacts may have been more immediate. A Roswell health care provider wrote a letter to a safety official with the Manhattan Project about a surprisingly high number of infant deaths one month after the bomb went off. Her concerns were dismissed. 

But the New Mexico Health Department of Health found an unusually high rate of infant mortality in counties downwind from the explosion. 

‘No one was taking notes here’

The impacts of the Atomic Age are broad in New Mexico, in Indigenous lands and throughout the region. Not only were many exposed to radiation during the Trinity Test in 1945, subsequent uranium mining for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons sickened and killed workers and their families.

Though the mines were mostly privately owned, the U.S. government was the customer paying for that uranium ore for decades after World War II. Hundreds of dormant and unaddressed mines remain like open wounds in the land, continuing harm to their neighbors.

Lawrence and Arlene Juanico never knew the land without uranium mines. Now, they are fighting for recognition of their impact on Laguna Pueblo. The Juanicos and other volunteers have worked to track diagnoses, and help people apply for benefits for family members. 

“No one was taking notes here,” Arlene Juanico said. “My partner and I are working to get an accurate amount of who was all affected by that.”

As more and more people impacted by radiation come forward — whether it’s from parts of  Missouri that were contaminated by Manhattan Project waste or families living in the Southwest when that first atomic bomb went off — the Juanicos want to make sure Laguna is remembered too. 

“I keep telling our people we need to expose ourselves to the world, let them know what we’ve gone through,” she said. “Because they’ll talk a little about Navajo Nation miners, yes, they talk about Trinity. They talk about Jana [Elementary School], in St. Louis. But what about this little place called Paguate Village, where the open-pit uranium mine was once the largest in the nation?”

They are both from Laguna, which is situated between two intermittent rivers — Rio Paguate and Rio San Jose — about 40 miles west of Albuquerque.

A winding belt of uranium snakes down the western edge of the state and neighboring Navajo Nation. The mining and development of that belt, inhabited by Indigenous people, drove the nuclear age in the United States.

After the Trinity detonation in southern New Mexico, the U.S. government demanded more nuclear weapons tests and stockpiles. The rapid expansion of civil nuclear power, while short-lived, also pushed uranium extraction higher.  

Montana-based Anaconda Minerals Co. operated the Jackpile-Paguate mine on Laguna Pueblo from 1952 until 1982. Anaconda also operated a mill in Bluewater about 40 miles northwest of Laguna, which refined the ore into enriched uranium to eventually use for weapons and power reactors.

Arlene grew up on the edge of Paguate village, which sits near what  was once the largest uranium mine in the world. Born just three years after the mine opened, she said her life was measured in blasts from the mine.

Every day, twice a day, she recalled, plumes would rise from the explosives detonated at noon and 4 p.m.

“Depending on which way the wind blew, that uranium dust would cover our village,” she said, recalling how her family members, mainly women, would try to cover the dried fruits and meats that hung outside.

Her father and brother worked in the mines. She eventually joined them in 1975 as a truck driver. She stayed on until 1981, just as the mine was closing.

The jobs made good money, Arlene said, and helped her during a period as a single mother.

But it also exacted its toll.

Her brother died of cancer in 1996. A nephew died of kidney cancer at age 39, her grandmother on her father’s side passed, also from cancer. Her father died in a car accident in 1968, but an autopsy revealed pulmonary fibrosis, a scarring of the lungs that makes breathing difficult and can be a sign of radiation injury.

The Juanicos said that many on Laguna paid the price with their health and their lives. As younger mine and mill workers age, they’re facing high medical bills and continued harm from radon exposure that is still present at the closed mine. It’s listed among the country’s Superfund sites, and though it’s being studied, a remedy has not been selected or started, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some New Mexico uranium miners are eligible for a one-time $100,000 payment under the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act. It’s limited to workers who were employed between 1942 and 1971. But plenty of miners and mill workers on Laguna labored there during later years. And as it stands, RECA is set to expire this summer. 

Congress considered broadening the act last year so more people across the country would be eligible for compensation, including those who’d worked the mines through 1990. 

Juanico said expanding the radiation compensation program would be “life-changing” for people impacted by radiation exposure. On Laguna, federal funds could at least help families travel to seek medical care, since the nearest hospital to offer care for these issues is in Albuquerque. 

Though RECA expansion had bipartisan support and cleared the Senate in July, it was stripped from a sprawling defense spending bill in December. 

“These people, how can they sleep at night, with the injustice of that vote, with the human lives that they’re playing with,” she said. “They betrayed us.”

It’s another “slap across the face,” Lawrence said.

Some lawmakers — including New Mexico’s delegation — vowed to keep fighting on behalf of the estimated tens of thousands more people nationwide who could seek recompense after being unwittingly exposed to radiation and suffering severe illnesses. 

The Juanicos and their cohort of miners are young enough that they could live to see the funding if a more comprehensive version of the act is passed soon, Arlene said. Many of the older community members may not. 

But in the wake of the mine’s shutdown, the people who are sickened and dying are left behind.

“When they shut everything down, they scrapped us,” Lawrence said.

Though RECA covers miners, mill workers and ore transporters, abandoned mines themselves remain a health hazard. Laguna Pueblo is downstream from several former mine and mill sites. Overall, there are an estimated 1,100 uranium mine and mill sites in New Mexico, with about half on the Navajo Nation.

It’s a problem of potentially “infinite” scope and cost, according to a lengthy research report from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico. Legislation passed and signed in 2022 directed the state’s Environment Department to coordinate other departments and agencies working on cleanup in the state, and created a revolving fund for the work, made up of grants and donations, federal funding, and money from settlements. 

Early stages of the work moved slowly, and state officials reported it would be years before cleanup could actually begin. Hiring people to oversee the efforts, deciding what methods to use, finding workers, identifying and chasing down responsible parties — all of that work, they said, will take time.

 

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