Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

On July 16, 1945 ‘Trinity,’ the first nuclear bomb, was detonated in a remote corner of the state known as the “Jornada del Muerto” (Journey of Death) on the Alamogordo Bombing Range 210 miles south of Los Alamos. After years of study, the National Cancer Institute concluded that some people probably got cancer from the radioactive fallout that wafted across New Mexico after the U.S. government detonated the first atomic bomb in 1945. The detonation changed our state forever.

The plutonium-based implosion-type device created a crater over 300 meters wide. The fireball shot hundreds of tons of irradiated soil to a height of 50,000 to 70,000 feet, spreading radioactive fallout over a very large area. Few had phones or radios, so even with the ash raining down, they believed Army officials that it was just an ammunition explosion.

Life went on as usual in New Mexico’s self-sufficient communities. They drank the water from their cistern rain catchment systems, ate the crops growing in their fields. All the meat, dairy, and produce that was consumed was grown, raised, hunted locally. All covered with radioactive ash. They found out it was an atomic bomb explosion a month later when the US dropped an atomic bomb on Japan.

There were tens of thousands of US citizens—men, women, and children—living in a 50-mile radius of the site at the time. “If you expand that radius to 150 miles, it includes Albuquerque to the North and Las Cruces and El Paso to the south, an area that included hundreds of thousands of people,” Tina Cordova, seventh-generation native New Mexican born and raised in Tularosa told The Paper. A thyroid cancer survivor, in 2005 she co-founded the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium.

The light from the bomb is reported to have been seen all the way to California and the blast was felt as far north as Albuquerque. Background radiation levels in the Albuquerque area are elevated when compared to much of the United States; about 330–530 mrem/yr, well in excess of the rest of the United States. Today the White Sands Missile Range is home to the Trinity site. The blast area is still radioactive.

Cordova and others have been lobbying Congress for 11 years to add the New Mexico Downwinders and Native American uranium miners to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) without success. “RECA will end in July 2022.  If we aren’t successful this year in getting RECA amended, we will likely never be successful in adding the people of New Mexico.  The fund has paid out more than 2.5 billion dollars in claims and offers lifesaving health care coverage,” she explained. 

Cordova said bills would be introduced over the next couple of weeks in Congress to address adding the people of New Mexico to RECA.  The proposal is expected to have bipartisan support and is being pushed by Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.). “We will need the full support of our Congressional delegation.  We need everyone to lobby on behalf of this social justice issue to bring restorative justice to the people of New Mexico.