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 fired.

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 unconscious.

"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 range.

"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 insists.

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)

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