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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One June morning, I met April Brune at her house in a hilly suburb above Reno. She is a warm, unflinching woman. Her face was ruddy from watering plants, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. The lawsuit had made little progress, she said, but Levin assured her that "things are happening." She had a good feeling about him. He would take a fee if they won, but he wasn't in it for the money, nor was she. They talked about using the funds to build a pediatric cancer research center in northern Nevada.

Still, she wasn't any closer to knowing what caused Ryan's tumor or whether it was related to the cluster. Sometimes, she blamed herself. "It kills me, all the 'what ifs' in my head," she said. "What if we had moved? What if it was when I smoked pot in high school? Stupid things like that." She couldn't help but feel that those around her knew something she did not. Once, while stopped at a traffic light beside a Kinder Morgan truck, she briefly thought about inviting the driver for a drink to see what he might tell her. "You just want the 100 percent truth," she said. "You have all these people saying, 'No, it's not the pipeline,' and then you question yourself. Am I doing the right thing? I believe the pipeline leaked, but I don't know beyond a shadow of a doubt. I wasn't there. And I haven't found someone who was – who can tell me, 'I fixed that leak.' That's my struggle. I don't want to blame someone wrongly for something so tragic."

There is little doubt that Ryan was exposed to jet fuel. While April was pregnant, her husband, Tim, fixed airplane fuel cells; later, she refueled planes at the airport. Studies show that workers regularly exposed to fuel exhale and off-gas hydrocarbons long after contact. Since the Brunes' employers have settled, though, the case now hinges on whether the pipeline leaked, which Kinder Morgan continues to deny.

A leak seems likely, though there is not much more than sworn testimony to prove it. The most compelling witness is Mark Witten, whom Ridenour, the local doctor, invited to Fallon early in the investigation. Witten was a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arizona and spent 20 years studying jet fuel toxicology for the Air Force. In depositions, he describes visiting the repair site by E.C. Best Elementary on three occasions. From 20 yards away, he was "overwhelmed" by fumes. Once, he says, fuel got on his boots, and his rental car company charged a cleaning fee. He later returned to Fallon with a tree-ring researcher, Paul Sheppard, to extract wood cores from five cottonwoods roughly 50 feet from the repair site. They detected naphthalene, a component of jet fuel, but when they returned months later to replicate the study, a road had been moved and the trees cut down.

A harder question to answer is if jet fuel caused Ryan's tumor. In October 2012, at Levin's request, Witten acquired brain tissue from Ryan and two individuals without cancer. Witten noted two unusual things about Ryan's sample: It contained tungsten, a heavy metal, and it had a "vastly different hydrocarbon profile." With so few samples, Witten could not say why, nor could he identify the hydrocarbons as jet fuel. "Is it due to him being exposed?" he said. "I'm not willing to speculate."

Tungsten is another inscrutable piece of Fallon's cancer puzzle. Late in 2002, the CDC announced that 68 percent of study participants had high levels of tungsten in their urine. Investigators met first with cluster families to review results. There was no sign, Braccini recalled, that his son Jeremy was exposed to jet fuel, but some numbers stood out. Jeremy had above average DDE, a byproduct of DDT. He had twice the arsenic as the average American adult. He had 60 times the tungsten. "Once I saw that," Braccini said, "it hurt me to put my son in the bathtub."

The numbers surprised investigators, who had not considered tungsten a suspect. Little is known about the metal's toxicology, and it was even unclear where the tungsten had come from. Braccini believed he knew. In the late 1990s, he worked for Kennametal, a firm that refines tungsten 10 miles north of Fallon and mills it at a plant in town, next to an elementary school. The Reno Gazette-Journal revealed that until 1990, the state exempted Kennametal from the Clean Air Act, allowing it to burn waste in the open air.

But investigators avoided mention of Kennametal when they presented the results to the public. Ralph Seiler of the USGS insisted that tungsten, like arsenic, occurs naturally in Fallon's aquifers. To be sure, the CDC gathered urine samples from residents in three Nevada towns without tungsten mills and found that all had tungsten levels above the national average. The agency concluded, "Exposure to tungsten in Churchill County does not appear to be unique." The report did not mention the study's most striking result: Fallon children had two to four times as much tungsten as children in other towns. The CDC nominated tungsten to the National Toxicology Program for further study; the metal is still awaiting analysis.

Investigators had not found the cause of the cluster – both sick and healthy individuals exhibited tungsten – but they had, parents believed, found reason for concern. Not everyone agreed. A February 2003 editorial by the Lahontan Valley News read the lack of proof as permission to put the issue to rest: "It is reassuring to know nothing in the environment is an acute health hazard." When Todd recommended that residents drink bottled water until a water treatment plant was built, Fallon's mayor, Ken Tedford, dismissed the advice as alarmist.

Tedford's reaction departed from his earlier handling of the cluster. "If I was moving my family to Fallon," he had said at one public meeting, "I would want to know that this community addressed the problem – it didn't deny it was there – and it helped those families that were suffering." As time passed, however, he became less responsive to parents' questions and dismissive of research beyond the official investigation. "I would tell the mayor that we needed to promote more research so people could make the decision to live here on their own terms, but he didn't want anything with leukemia tied in with the town," Brenda Gross told me. She believed his reasons were economic. Between 1999 and 2002, Fallon home values fell 15 percent. The Navy base allowed sailors' families to remain at their former bases until the investigation was complete. Business owners bemoaned the situation; an auto dealer blamed his 40 percent revenue loss on "the new image of Fallon."

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