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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When I asked parents if they felt supported by the community, some made an important distinction: "The community really looked at our children as their children," Carinsa Phelan, whose daughter survived leukemia, told me. "But there was not as much support in finding out what was going on, because these are big companies in Fallon. It was like, 'Yes, I'm sorry your children are sick, but this is our livelihood.' " Braccini said he sometimes felt "blamed for the downfall of this community." Once, at the hospital, waiting for his son's blood test results, he overheard a lab technician say that the cluster families "brought the cancer with them" to Fallon. " 'My son was conceived, born, and raised here,' " Braccini recalled saying. " 'Is that not good enough for you?' They just stared back at me. People were polite, but it was a phony kind of polite. I realized the general public knew only a small amount of what transpired, so you felt alone in what you knew."

In 2003, FIST members met regularly to discuss strategy. Braccini and Gross wanted to recruit scientists to do better environmental sampling and investigate hypotheses they believed state and federal agencies neglected. Though Sen. Reid offered to raise funds for more research, parents found little support otherwise. Their numbers dwindled as families moved away and time passed without new diagnoses.

Officials declared the investigation closed in 2004. "As long as parents stayed involved, someone somewhere would try to keep the research going," Gross said. But she worried that scientists would refuse to work with FIST. Two parents had filed wrongful death suits against Kennametal and the city. "I tried to tell families that we had to stay open-minded if we wanted to get any research done. You could tell that some were looking for information to blame someone with." A father began to withhold findings due to confidentiality agreements with his lawyer. Gross didn't blame him; through subpoena, the case would likely uncover corporate documents inaccessible to the public. She also sensed a different desperation in those who sued: "They lost their children. Mine lived."

But the disagreement broke up the organization. Gross stopped attending meetings. She had spent much of three years away from home for legislative hearings and media appearances. Through it all, she worked full-time as an office manager. She realized the toll it was taking one morning when her daughter missed the school bus. "After everything we'd been through and coming up empty-handed, I just had to let go and focus on my family."

Phelan, who left Fallon in 2004, said something similar: "I think I lost focus on what was most important, which was my child and getting her better, because it became all about finding out what was going on."

Todd had not intended the search for a cause to end with the official investigation. He described to me the thin line between "making sure there's nothing obvious lurking in the community" – government investigators' role – and doing research. "We said, 'We're going to go up to this point, and others can go beyond that.' We had the sense that even though this was a highly significant cluster, it wasn't large enough to find the answers, and we hoped that researchers would be able to cast a larger net." In other words, scientists would have to combine Fallon's samples with those from leukemia patients in the larger population and look for things that set Fallon's apart.

For years after the investigation closed, several scientists did carry on. In 2004, Sen. Reid secured $250,000 for Jill James, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas, to investigate a difference in the way Fallon children with and without leukemia metabolized toxic substances. James found that sick children had less glutathione, an antioxidant, in their blood. This could mean that children who developed leukemia were less able to rid their bodies of arsenic, tungsten and jet fuel. Over time, these lingering contaminants may have damaged their DNA, making them susceptible to cancer. James never published the findings. She had only 20 blood samples – not enough to reach a conclusive result.

In 2006, Sen. Reid secured another $700,000. Remaining FIST members, with help from the University of Nevada-Reno, solicited proposals. Three research teams won grants, including Witten to study the role of tungsten in leukemia development. After detecting naphthalene in the trees by the school, Witten and Sheppard had measured tungsten using a similar technique. Among their most compelling discoveries is that tungsten levels are significantly higher in tree rings since the mid-to-late 1990s, right before the cluster began. They have published more than a dozen scientific papers on the topic, many in reputable journals. But their work has drawn criticism, first from Todd, who recounted a phone call in which he accused Witten of bad methodology. Witten did not recall the conversation, and when I asked about Todd's other criticism – that Witten shared his results with the press before publishing them – he said, "That's just a cheap shot."

Other critics are Seiler, the USGS hydrologist who maintains that the tungsten is natural, and scientists employed by Kennametal, who accuse Witten and Sheppard of misrepresenting data. Both have been deposed for ongoing litigation against Kennametal, and lawyers have subpoenaed their data and emails. Witten does not hide his opinions. "The story in all of this is how big companies go out to these little towns, and they're the only employer, and they get away with murder, essentially, in the way they pollute," he told me. Sheppard is more cautious: "I cannot say that tungsten causes leukemia. It may appear that one side wants me to survive and one side doesn't, but that's not my problem."

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