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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April Brune said something similar. When she returns to Fallon to see friends, she sometimes remarks to them how difficult it must be to live there, given the uncertainty. "It's frustrating to think that the truth may never come out and that whatever it is could still be there," she told me. Her friends change the subject. "That's how I was. I didn't want to think that my kids were going to get sick. I loved my little farming community. They want their home that's tucked away in the middle of the desert, and I can't blame them for it."

Only four cluster families remain in Fallon. When I asked Jeff Braccini if he considered leaving, he said he was anchored by work and family, though staying had not always been easy. "It took me years to pull my mind out of it," he said. Sometimes, his coworkers tell him about other sick children. He is willing to talk but careful about drawing conclusions. He sees Tedford and other town officials at restaurants and house parties, and they often say hello. Braccini takes this for respect – "I think they know I've never screamed conspiracy theories" – but he still senses their discomfort.

Since Carinsa Phelan moved away, she told me, "I try to think about it as little as possible, because it was a very dark time." Occasionally, she searches the Internet to see if an answer has been found. This was how she learned about Ryan Brune. Last spring, while in Reno, Phelan met April for dinner. "She asked me how I found out about my daughter being sick," she recalled. "I started crying. It hadn't dawned on me that I still had those emotions." April also began to cry. "I wanted to tell her to not give up, to try to get to the bottom of it. I feel like I kind of gave up because I didn't lose my daughter. I was able to move on and raise my child. It's a different crusade for her."

I met April again at the Reno Air Races in September. Her husband, Tim, was showing a refurbished fighter jet, and we sat in the shade of a wing. She hadn't heard from Levin in some time. He had recruited another attorney, and the trial had been postponed. Now and then, she came across something interesting on the Internet and forwarded it to Levin. He always seemed pleased and encouraged her to "keep digging," but the work consumed her, and Tim asked that she "let Al take care of it."

Tim dealt quietly with his pain. April, to cope with her own, volunteered for the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which had sent Ryan to Hawaii before he died. The foundation kept a list of wish requests, and whenever a child from Fallon appeared, April took the boy or girl on. She bought them gifts and organized parties. She came to know the children's parents but never told them about her son.

That fall, a girl died of brain cancer before getting her wish. The mother sent a funeral notice, but April could not bring herself to attend. Recently, the mother called, and April, sensing she wanted someone to talk to, invited her to lunch. I asked if she would mention Ryan this time, but she said no; the woman was grieving, and, besides, how could she explain everything that had happened? The case was not for money. It was not even to force a company to admit fault. A parent who loses a child never wins. It was only to answer a question that anyone would ask. So she would spare the woman her story, and she would listen, because what could she say that wouldn't leave a parent to wonder?

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is a contributing editor at High Country News and a 2013 National Health Journalism Fellow.

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund, The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School of Journalism, and The Mesa Refuge.

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