Fallon, Nevada’s deadly legacy

In a small town once plagued by childhood cancer, some families still search for answers.

  • April Brune holds a stuffed dog that belonged to her son, Ryan, who died from brain cancer in 2009. The Brunes, along with several families who live or used to live in Fallon, Nevada, believe environmental factors there are at least partly to blame for numerous cases of childhood cancer.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • The former Brune home on Briggs Lane in Fallon, vacant between renters, and surrounded by tumbleweeds.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • Jeff and Debbie Braccini on their ranch in Fallon. Their son, Jeremy, survived leukemia. Jeff went on to delve into – and poke holes in – the studies surrounding the cancer cluster.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • A report from tests on the Braccini family found elevated levels of numerous metals and chemicals.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • A tungsten mill as seen through the swings at Northside Elementary School in Fallon, Nevada.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • Signs mark the Kinder Morgan jet fuel pipeline that travels through Fallon.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • Jack Allen refuels an F-16 fighter jet, left, at Fallon Naval Air Station. Jet fuel, which has carcinogenic components, is pumped through Fallon in a Kinder Morgan pipeline that many people believe has leaked.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • A Kennametal kiln refines tungsten ore 10 miles north of town.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • Gary Ridenour, a Fallon doctor, has teamed up with April Brune's attorney, Alan Levin, to uncover environmental causes of cancer. But they're at odds with town and state officials, who have accused them of spreading false information.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • Students trickle out of E.C. Best Elementary School in Fallon, which Ryan Brune had attended since preschool. Attorney Alan Levin has charged that a leak in the Kinder Morgan jet fuel pipeline that runs beside the school contributed to the boy's brain cancer.

    Max Whittaker/Prime

 

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That summer, Kinder Morgan announced it would make repairs. The repairmen worked in the dark. Some parents watched them. One night around 11 p.m., Braccini got a call from Floyd Sands, whose daughter also had leukemia. Sands said that workers were digging up the pipe by the school. As he neared, Braccini glimpsed a dump truck, a backhoe and several white trucks parked around a hole. "Floyd started snapping photos," Braccini recalled. "That's what got them really pissed. They shooed us away."

Braccini doubted that jet fuel caused the cluster. He was sure the pipeline had leaked – he could smell fuel – but his son had not yet started school. Nor had Ralph Seiler, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist with whom Braccini corresponded, found hydrocarbons in Fallon wells. Still, Braccini began to wonder: Why hadn't investigators sampled soils from irrigation ditches, the schoolyard or along the pipeline?

"Sometimes I think they didn't do these things, or maybe they didn't tell us, because they were afraid parents would say, 'That's what it is,' and point the finger," Brenda Gross, whose son had leukemia, told me. In August 2002, Gross and eight other parents met with Jan Schlichtmann, the lawyer who prosecuted the Woburn case. Although Schlichtmann had amassed an enormous body of evidence implicating two companies in Woburn, the lawsuit lasted seven years and left him broke, and the defendants never admitted fault. Schlichtmann advised the Fallon parents to use litigation as a last resort. So they formed Families in Search of the Truth – FIST – to promote more thorough scientific research. "I truly was not looking to find fault," Gross said. "But the state had blinders on, and if you follow a straight path and never deviate, those needles in a haystack are a lot harder to find."

"We felt like we were in search of the truth," Randall Todd told me one September morning at his Reno office. Todd, 60, is an earnest, balding man, with the manner of one accustomed but not hardened to criticism. He left the Nevada State Health Division in 2005 and is now director of epidemiology and public health preparedness for Washoe County. "But we're the government," he said. "We're always going to be under some suspicion that we're trying to protect industry or the military."

Throughout the investigation, Todd reminded Fallon residents that the odds of finding a cause were low. "That said," he explained, "we had a terrible time managing the expectations of this community." Critics read officials' caution as lack of resolve. The director of the Health Division resigned after an administrator chided her for "not moving quickly enough." Todd was instructed to speak frequently to the press. He was not treated kindly. When a reporter asked why he didn't "think outside the box," he replied, "You're right. I haven't consulted psychics or ouija boards. There's a box outside of which I won't go, and that box is science." On the Phil Donohue Show, a father called him "mister" instead of "doctor," saying Todd was a bureaucrat, "not a real doctor." NBC's Ann Curry asked, "Isn't it true that some children have died?" "Yes," he replied. "Dr. Todd," Curry said, "how can you live with yourself?"

Todd rarely strayed from his script.  "I tried to reassure people that good science is seldom fast," he told me. "I don't think they liked that message, and there were others coming around with messages more likeable than ours."

One was Alan Levin, April Brune's attorney, who called Todd in the fall of 2000. He introduced himself as "Doctor Lawyer Levin" and a Woburn investigator. According to Todd, "He said, 'I think this could be the cluster where we find the viral trigger of childhood leukemia.' " Todd agreed but soon grew wary of Levin and his motives. "He indicated that if he saw some deep pockets responsible for this, he'd go after them," recalled Todd. "He thought law was one of the greatest forces for social good in this country. You'll never hear a physician say that." Levin also claimed there was a test that could tell if a child was genetically predisposed to leukemia. Todd consulted several experts who assured him that such a test did not exist. He skimmed A Civil Action: "There's a point in it where a judge accuses him of 'screwball science.' " By then, Todd had stopped talking with Levin.

Levin continued to attend public meetings, often with Gary Ridenour, the local physician and Ryan Brune's hospice doctor. They made an odd pair. Levin, who once held research appointments at the University of California-San Francisco, a top-ranked medical school, is gaunt, well-dressed, and frequently mentions his friendship with the late Mafia boss, Joseph Bonanno. Ridenour, who styles himself "the last country doctor," earned his degree from the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara, in Mexico, and, for a period in the 1990s, lost his license after illegally dispensing painkillers. (He now runs a bustling practice and has been voted "best doctor" in the local paper seven years in a row.) Todd believed both men were purveyors of false information. At one meeting, when an attendee asked if there really was a test for susceptibility to leukemia, and Todd said no, Levin yelled, "You know that's not true!" At another, Levin referred to the cluster as "a simple, simple problem." This criticism still haunted Todd. Once a legislator told him, "Maybe I've watched Erin Brockovich too many times, but I just feel that if we all go out there and dig, we'll find the answer."

"In the movies," Todd told me, "it's not about an epidemiological investigation," which seldom has clear heroes and villains. "It's about an attorney who rides in and holds a company responsible for putting something in the environment, all wrapped up with a nice bow on it. These people badly wanted to find the answer. We wanted to make sure they understood that we might provide an answer, but we might not. I don't think they heard that. Would I hear that if I had a sick child? I don't know that I would."