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.


Finally, something Republicans and Democrats agree on. There is still time for justice for tens of thousands of New Mexicans who mined uranium, or are living in, or downwind of, a remote corner of New Mexico known as the “Jornada del Muerto” (Journey of Death). On July 16, 1945 ‘Trinity,’ the first nuclear bomb, was detonated there. The site is located on the Alamogordo Bombing Range 210 miles south of Los Alamos. In the 48 years following Trinity, the U.S. conducted more than 200 above-ground nuclear tests.

Back in 1945, when the Army officials told those living in the Trinity blast area and downwind communities that an ammunition explosion created the ash raining down on them, residents believed them.

Those affected by the blast were self-sufficient communities. What they ate was grown, raised or hunted locally. The crops growing in their fields, their cistern rain catchments, the roads, their houses, the trees and orchards – everything was covered with radioactive ash. Life went on as usual after the blast and they unknowingly drank and ate contaminated food and water.

The National Cancer Institute studied the effect of the blast for years and finally concluded that when the U.S. government detonated the first atomic bomb, some people probably got cancer from the radioactive fallout that blew across New Mexico.

In 1990 Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) allowing for partial restitution to individuals who developed serious illnesses after presumed exposure to radiation. Many New Mexico residents and Native Americans affected by the Trinity blast, or who worked in the cold war uranium industry, have received no support from RECA. As of May 2, there were 481 pending claims.

RECA was set to expire in July 2022. The bill that extends and expands RECA federal relief for Americans impacted by nuclear activities unanimously passed in the U.S. Senate last week. The U.S. House of Representatives just approved an extension to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act on May 12; it now just needs President Biden’s signature.

Introduced last year by New Mexico’s U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, the Senators seek to expand support of uranium mine workers in the northern part of the state, and include New Mexico’s “downwinders” who did not work directly in nuclear operations but were still impacted as nearby residents. They also want the impacts of the Trinity Site recognized over the six years before testing began in Nevada.

Democratic U.S. Representative Teresa Leger Fernández of New Mexico led the push through the House. Fernández (NM-03) and Representative Burgess Owens (UT-04) sent a bipartisan letter to Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Hoyer, Minority Leader McCarthy and Minority Whip Scalise, urging them to bring the RECA Extension Act of 2022 to the House Floor for a vote.

Passage of the two-year extension for RECA gives lawmakers time to pass amendments that would expand compensation eligibility. Luján said among the amendments proposed for RECA is a 19-year extension to allow time for those who are affected by radiation to apply for compensation.

“This two-year extension of RECA is a step in the right direction to secure a long-term extension and expansion of benefits and eligibility, but we have more work to do; we can’t turn our backs on our communities,” Ferdandez said.

Uranium mining has left a legacy of death, disease and environmental contamination on the Navajo Nation. Hundreds of people worked in uranium mines, mills and in reclamation efforts.

In 1979, the largest spill of radioactive material in the United States occurred when 94 million gallons of radioactive tailings and wastewater spewed on Tribal lands in the Church Rock area in western New Mexico.

“We need to finally amend RECA so it includes families who lived in and near New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin at the time of the Trinity Test and all of the Cold War-era uranium mill workers and miners who continue to cope with serious health problems due to exposure to radioactive nuclear material,” Heinrich explained.

The fireball created by Trinity shot hundreds of tons of irradiated soil nearly thirteen miles high and spread radioactive fallout over an area with a radius of at least 160 miles.

Thyroid cancer survivor, Tina Cordova, a seventh-generation native New Mexican born and raised in Tularosa, co-founded the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium in 2005. “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,” Cordova told The Paper.