• Brittany Evans

A History of Environmental Racism in the U.S.-From The Trinity Test to Uranium Mining

The Trinity Test was conducted in July of 1945 in New Mexico's Alamogordo Bombing Range. The Trinity Test was a test that the U.S. government conducted with their first atomic bomb. At the time of the test it was unclear if the bomb would work, what the effects of the bomb were, and the span of the effects across neighboring communities. The test was conducted in Alamogordo which was considered a "flat, desert scrub region" because the nearest community was twenty miles away from the test site. The test was the first of its kind for the U.S. meaning it was unclear what was going to happen after the explosion. The explosion could have easily exceeded the physicist's expectations and caused severe health complications for the surrounding communities from the radiation.

The Trinity Test was so secret that the government did not tell the surrounding communities of the dangers of radiation from fallout after the test. Ready.gov defines fallout as radioactive, visible dirt and debris raining down from several miles up that can cause sickness to those who are outside. While the government conducted testing shortly after the Trinity Test, the testing did not meet the standards that are in place currently which allowed for a higher amount of radiation exposure. The University of Utah Cancer Institute estimates that the fallout could have traveled over 100 miles. After travel, the fallout landed on resident's homes, land, personal belongings (i.e. laundry hung out to dry, vehicles, pets, livestock...etc) because they were unaware of the test and could not prepare. One resident has been documented as saying he was outside with his father at the time of the explosion and he recalls thinking the world was ending, being unaware of what was happening. The fallout not only affected the neighboring resident's items, it also fell into their water supply and on the food sources (livestock and crops)therefore contaminating everything they ate and drank.

One group called the Tularosa Downwinders fights for the rights of residents of neighboring communities who have been negatively affected by the fallout. The citizens of neighboring communities have experienced a spike in infant mortality and cancer. In September 1945 the infant mortality rate spiked to 187.8 per 1000 live births in communities surrounding the test site; an increase of 38% in that year. Cancer diagnosis also spiked following the test. One study found that several hundred cancers, primarily thyroid cancer, have occurred over the 75 years since the test and a small number are projected to occur in the future that would not have otherwise occurred in the absence of radiation exposure from Trinity fallout.

The results of the test have limitations because before 1945 there was not a tumor registry to track cancers in New Mexico, nor were there prior cancer statistics for New Mexico. This lack of information clouds the data and makes it difficult for the Downwinders to settle with the U.S. government. On 03/24/2021 the Committee on the Judiciary held a virtual hearing where they discussed the need to expand eligibility under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). As of 03/15/2021 $2.4 billion has been paid in compensation to residents who qualified; this pales in comparison to the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund is authorized to disburse up to $7.375 billion for a one-time event perpetrated, not by our government, but by foreign terrorists.

Another case of environmental racism due to government disregard for health is the case of the Navajo people mining uranium. RECA also acknowledged responsibility for the historical mistreatment of uranium miners by the US government and made provision for financial compensation to miners with diseases that could be related to their mining experience. Navajo men flocked to the mines to find work because it was likely the only option available in the area surrounding their homes. Regardless of prior knowledge of uranium mining leading to high rates of lung cancer, the U.S. government provided only minimal protective equipment to the miners. The increased risk of lung cancer remained unknown to the Navajo people, even though the Treaty of 1868 between the Navajo people and the U.S. government assigned the Bureau of Indian Affairs to care for Navajo economic, educational, and health services. About 10 years after the mining began, lung cancer began developing in the Navajo workers. The actions, complaints, and group organizing led to the enactment of RECA in 1990.


Speaking Plainly:

  • The U.S. government failed to alert neighboring communities of the potential for radiation poisoning before the Trinity Test in 1945.

  • Residents of neighboring communities have been diagnosed with excessive instances of cancers and infant mortality.

  • Despite knowledge of increased cancer risks, the Navajo people were not warned or given extra protection in the mines.

  • RECA was formed in 1990 to compensate those affected by radiation.