A bill signed Tuesday by President Joe Biden provided federal funds to help with medical bills for New Mexican uranium miners contaminated by radiation for another two years, also allowing more time for those living around the Trinity Site near Alamogordo to advocate they also be included in the reparations.
The two-year extension of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) cosponsored by U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) passed the U.S. Senate and House this year and was signed into law ahead of its previous sunset date in July.
This those impacted by radiation exposure from federal operations can continue to receive cash payments: up to $100,000 for uranium miners and other associated workers, $75,000 to workers onsite during nuclear weapons testing and $50,000 for those living in communities “downwind” of the Nevada Test Site.
The downwinders presently included in the funding were in Utah, Nevada and Arizona impacted by weapons testing since 1951.
In 1945, the first nuclear weapons in the U.S., part of the Manhattan Project, were tested at the Trinity Site in south-central New Mexico, but no New Mexicans living downwind of that site were included in the RECA payments.
Advocates from the state and those living in nearby rural communities like Carrizozo long argued they should be eligible for reparations as many said their families suffered from myriad cancers and other health problems associated with the Trinity Site.
Lujan said upon signing of the extension that it would provide more time to right what he called an injustice against his constituents.
“Since being sworn in as Senator, it has been a top priority to ensure that this critical program does not expire. With the President’s signature, we avoided that injustice,” he said. “But this fight is not over.
“The federal government must do right by all Americans whose lives were impacted by radiation exposure in the national defense effort, and I will continue working to expand this program to include all affected downwinders and post-1971 uranium mine workers.”
The RECA program should be “strengthened,” Lujan said, to compensate New Mexicans and all Americans still living with the consequences of nuclear fallout.
“A strengthened RECA program would deliver long-overdue justice for families in New Mexico and across the nation who know the pain and sorrow caused by radiation exposure,” he said.
Tina Cordova, founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium said she and others from the area felt that pain firsthand.
She said every day the consortium is audience to stories from New Mexican families racked with generational stories of terminal cancers caused by the activities of the Trinity Site.
And the federal government has so far done nothing, Cordova said, although she said the signing of RECA’s extension provided rare “progress” for the cause.
“It was essential. Without that, in about a month the program would have sunset and we would have been out of time and out of luck,” Cordova said.
Aside from granting the RECA more time to be expanded, Cordova said could also raise awareness for the plight of New Mexican downwinders among leaders in Congress and in the White House.
“The only good thing other than that it gives it two more years is that everyone in Congress and the President knows about RECA,” she said. “We’ve elevated this to a national issue. We finally have attention.”
Cordova said her group has worked to see bills to expand the program to include New Mexico’s downwinder communities for 12 years without success.
“Innocent people living in New Mexico were sacrificed to this program. People have been suffering ever since,” she said. “We were exposed and sacrificed with no acknowledgment no assistance with our government completely looking away. We can’t give up. We’re closer now than ever before.
“We’re going to continue to make this a national issue. There will come a day when they can no longer look away.”
That effort most recently took the form of a Senate bill cosponsored by Lujan along with similar legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives sponsored by U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-NM).
The Senate bill was last read in the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Sept. 22, 2021 and no action was taken since, records show, while the House version passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on a 25-8 vote Dec. 8, 2021.
“All it takes is one conversation with downwinder communities to see the injustice these communities face,” Leger Fernandez said following the vote. “The RECA Amendments will ensure that the program does not lapse as well as fair compensation for the communities left behind.
“For decades, Nuevo Mexicanos have suffered the long-term effects of nuclear testing and uranium mining on our lands.”