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Downwinder is cautiously optimistic that a defense bill amendment will bring radiation compensation

Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, at a protest in October 2019 near the entrance to the Trinity site.
Megan Kamerick
Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, at a protest in October 2019 near the entrance to the Trinity site.

The Senate passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act last week and for the first time, it also approved an amendment that expands the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. This could have a profound impact on people who lived near the site of the 1945 Trinity Test, the first atomic explosion, which took place in southern New Mexico. They have been excluded from compensation, as have uranium miners who did work after 1971. Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinder Consortium, spoke with KUNM the day after the Senate vote.

TINA CORDOVA: I'm cautiously optimistic today, I think that this creates a great deal of momentum around passing the bills. Finally. I've been working on this for 18 years, and we've had bills introduced for 13 years now. It's an amazing day. We're not at the finish line, but we're closer than we've ever been before.

KUNM: What would this mean for people like you and other people, who are descended from those who were actually near Trinity at the time?

CORDOVA: Well, it will mean the one-time payment of partial restitution of $150,000 to people who meet the criteria. But let me just put this in perspective. If just 100 people in a town like Carrizoz are able to apply for and receive that payment of restitution, that's $15 million. And $15 million has never come to Carrizozo in any way, shape, or form. But aside from that, if you are currently living with cancer and meet the criteria, again, having been born before 1963, or between 1945 and 1963, or having lived in New Mexico during that timeframe, and you have a compensable cancer, you can apply for the health care coverage. And it's the best available anyplace in the world. No coinsurance, no co-payments, no deductibles. If you need a lung transplant, and the only place that you can get it is Kentucky, they send you there with your family and they pay for everything. If you need around-the-clock nursing care, they pay for that. If your spouse becomes your caregiver, they pay them $75,000 a year.

It will also establish, further establish, more of these clinics where people can go and be screened for cancer early so that their prognosis is better. And the coverage isn't just for people downwind. It's for uranium miners and mill workers who also worked after 1971 who are not currently covered. If you are Native American, and you worked in the mines, after 1971. And you happen to get cancer, Indian Health Service doesn't provide cancer treatment. So they go in search of treatment for you. And it can take months, if not years. And by that time people die. This will have a transformative effect for people who basically have been left to their own means for over 78 years to deal with the consequences of having been overexposed to radiation.

KUNM: Tina, you and other downwinders go twice a year when there's an open house at the Trinity site for the public. Let's say this passes. Would you still continue then to go down to Trinity and have these protests?

CORDOVA: I would like to see us refocus our efforts entirely, into making certain that as many New Mexicans as possible are enrolled and accepted into the program. I also want to work on a curriculum to be taught in our schools about this history so that it's not forgotten. And I'd like to see the state government in conjunction with the federal government erect a permanent monument to the downwinders and uranium workers in New Mexico who were so horribly harmed during this nuclear process and left out of the history. And so it's likely that we'll work on something like that as well.

KUNM: The consortium has been very vocal about countering some of the narrative in the “Oppenheimer” film. Do you think because it's gotten so much publicity this has helped propel this effort to finally get recognition?

CORDOVA: I always say, imagine that there would have never been a Manhattan Project without the uranium workers who pulled the uranium out of the ground. Imagine that there would have been no Manhattan Project without the men and women that were bussed up to Los Alamos who did the dirtiest jobs. I always say the local Native women and Hispanic women cleaned every house cooked every meal and changed every diaper and you don't see that in the film, right? So it would be amazing if [“Oppenheimer” director] Chris Nolan were to acknowledge us with a panel at the end of the film, and if some of those really well-known actors came out as well in support of what we're doing. I believe the film has given us a platform to have a real discussion about the real history of the Manhattan Project and its effects on the people of New Mexico. There's no way that anybody who did research around the Manhattan Project and the Trinity test was unaware of us. And not only that, but we did outreach to the filmmakers while they were here and even when they left and you know, shame on them for not giving us the attention that we should have been given inside the film, at least inside of a panel at the end of the film.

The Senate, led by Democrats, and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives must now reconcile the two versions of the Defense Authorization Act before the end of the year.

Megan has been a journalist for 25 years and worked at business weeklies in San Antonio, New Orleans and Albuquerque. She first came to KUNM as a phone volunteer on the pledge drive in 2005. That led to volunteering on Women’s Focus, Weekend Edition and the Global Music Show. She was then hired as Morning Edition host in 2015, then the All Things Considered host in 2018. Megan was hired as News Director in 2021.
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