May 15th, 2000
2. Minority Residents
|Keeping Quiet to Keep the Pay Check
Reflecting a history of oppression
At one of the family restaurants that line
the main street in Socorro, New Mexico, I
was having a late breakfast with Damacio
Lopez (56), who had taken me the previous
day to see the firing range of the Energetic
Materials Research Test Center (EMRTC) associated
with the New Mexico Institute of Mining and
Technology. It was Sunday morning, and the
restaurant was filled with families.
Fired after the leak
"There's a friend of mine who works
at the center. I'll introduce you."
So saying, Lopez led me toward a man in his
thirties. "This is a journalist from
Hiroshima. After you finish eating, how about
talking to him and telling him about the
center?" The friend, who was with another
employee, looked suddenly frightened and
waved me away.
"He finally got this job three years
after graduating from college. He can't afford
to take the chance of losing it," explained
Lopez when we returned to our seats. The
majority of Socorro's 8,000 residents are
Hispanic. In the spring of 1986, a dozen
or so employees had leaked documents to Lopez
regarding the use of the firing range for
depleted uranium penetrators. Most had been
Lopez was a pro golfer who returned to his
hometown after an auto accident to find depleted
uranium munitions being tested at a firing
range near his home. "I couldn't just
sit back while the natural environment and
the people of my hometown were being endangered."
He became an activist, working, among other
things, to force the state Environmental
Protection Department (EPD) to disclose data
about radioactive contamination at the firing
range and in the air around it.
Attacked on the way home
The EPD responded by removing the atmospheric
monitor previously installed in the city
of Socorro. Later, it published information
declaring the contamination to be within
standards of public safety.
Convinced that the EPD was trying to hide
the facts, Lopez decided to try using politics
to expose the effects of depleted uranium
shells and get the testing stopped. He announced
in February that he was running for mayor
in the fall election. However, in the evening
of March 1, 1986, just as he was nearing
his home on bicycle, he was struck and knocked
"I was right near my house. Apparently,
whoever did this came out of the bushes.
When I came to five or six hours later, I
was on the operating table at the local hospital."
In addition to a deep wound on the right
side of his head, several of his ribs had
been fractured and his collar bone was broken
on the right shoulder. A nurse passing by
found him and his bicycle near the roadside
ditch. She called an ambulance that took
him to the hospital. His face and body had
been doused with whiskey.
Increase in cancer and other disorders
Lopez and other residents continued to push
for a halt to the testing, but the tests
continued. Then, in 1993, two years after
the end of the Gulf War, the university officially
announced that it had stopped the testing
of depleted uranium munitions on the firing
"Even if that were true, contamination
remains from the testing that has been going
on since 1972. The state government and the
university continue to say there's no problem,
but we know the firing range is contaminated,
and there's a high probability that it's
leaked into the ground water," Lopez
Lopez' father died seven years ago from cancer.
Leukemia and other cancers have increased
in the area, as has the number of babies
born with congenital defects. "Most
folks here know this and talk about it behind
closed doors. But if you try to investigate
anything, they all keep their mouths shut."
Long years of oppression have taught the
members of this community not to raise their
voices. When jobs are at stake, people tend
to keep quite about a vague and unknown danger.
"I can't blame them, but I'm going to
keep doing whatever I can to protect their
lives and help polluted Mother Earth return
to her natural condition."
Lopez has been fighting the battle against
depleted uranium for 14 years. He is now
a key member of the International Depleted
Uranium Study Team, a grassroots organization
established in the autumn of 1998, which
includes some Iraqis.
"I worry about my mother's health. She's
79." Damacio Lopez at home with his
mother Adelina. (Socorro, New Mexico)