Home to the scientists who built the nuclear bomb, the company town of Los Alamos, New Mexico is today one of the richest in the country – even as toxic waste threatens its residents and neighbouring Española struggles with poverty.
Today, Los Alamos is a secret no longer: it’s a small community with about 18,000 people living in the main town and a suburb called White Rock. But the nuclear lab remains, and the city is still an island in many ways: an extraordinary pocket of wealth and privilege, surrounded by some of the poorest counties in New Mexico, one of the poorest states in America.
The city is also partly toxic. The nuclear research lab still disposes of radioactive waste, and an underground plume of hexavalent chromium – a contaminant linked to increased risks of cancer and made famous by Erin Brockovich – has been drifting from the lab. A September 2016 report from the lab’s environmental management office said it could take more than 20 years and nearly $4bn (£3.3bn) to clean up decades-old nuclear waste in the area.
And yet Los Alamos has more millionaires per capita than almost anywhere else in the country.
‘It’s a stark example of the 1% and 99%’
Today Los Alamos has become one of the richest cities in America. At least one in every nine people – a whopping 12% of the population – is thought to be a millionaire. Los Alamos also regularly tops the list in terms of the best education and lowest crime levels in the state. It has one of the country’s highest concentration of PhDs.
On the map of New Mexico, Los Alamos county – created in 1949 – is a tiny dot next to Rio Arriba, one of the largest counties in the state. In Los Alamos, average incomes are twice as high as those in Rio Arriba. A 2012 Census Bureau report said this was one of the largest wealth gaps between two neighbouring counties in America.
Just 30km from this affluent island is the town of Española. Here the median household income is $33,000 and almost 30% of the population live under the poverty line. For years it has also struggled with its reputation as the heroin overdose capital of America.
Others see the inequality between Los Alamos and neighbouring communities as a prime example of a common dynamic across the country – and a reminder of how stories of wealth “trickling down” can be far-fetched.
“It’s a stark example of the proverbial 1% and the other 99%,” says Jay Coghlan, sitting in a large reclining chair in the living room of his home in Santa Fe. A 45 minute drive south-east from Los Alamos, his home doubles as an office for Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
There are also concerns about the lab’s environmental impact on neighbouring communities. Peña’s organisation is part of the Communities for Clean Water coalition created to monitor Los Alamos’s impact on water for “drinking, agriculture, sacred ceremonies, and a sustainable future”.
The September 2016 report on nuclear waste came from the the lab’s own environmental management office. The 20-plus years and $4bn clean-up costs were criticised – for being likely underestimates.
“The [lab’s] location was chosen for its secrecy, not its safety. And now there’s so much money, it’s seen as an investment they don’t want to lose,” says Peña, wondering aloud how many of Los Alamos’s residents “know on whose land they are, and that the privilege of living here comes with responsibility”.
But, again, the word she chooses is “complicated”.
“There needs to be a transition to a different mission [for the lab], to things like clean-up technologies, alternative energy, green energy,” she argues. “Protest groups come here and say ‘Shut it down’. But for us, it’s much more complicated, because our families are economically tied to the lab.”