Last June, Adam Jernee died from acute lymphocytic leukemia, a remorselessly fast-moving cancer of the blood. He was eight-years old and had fought the cancer for more than two years of his short life.
Adam and his father lived in Fallon, Nevada. This small ranching town of 8,000 people in the Carson Desert 50 miles east of Reno may have the highest per capita rate of childhood leukemia in the nation. The children of Fallon are more than 100 times more likely to be stricken with leukemia then children elsewhere in country.
Last week, another Fallon child was diagnosed with leukemia. That makes 17 kids from Fallon who have been contracted leukemia since 1997. Adam is the second child to have died within the past year. In September, Stephanie Sands succumbed to the cancer after battling it for two years. She was 21.
Cancer isn't the only problem. Kids and adults in Fallon and surrounding Churchill County are coming down with a myriad of other rare diseases, such as Myelodysplastic Syndrome and aplastic anemia. These diseases also relentlessly attack the bone marrow.
The kinds of cancers and other illnesses that have cropped up in the Fallon area are almost certainly caused by some kind of exposure to toxic chemicals. The source of that poison almost certainly sits a few miles outside the town of Fallon — somewhere on the 240,000-acre Fallon Naval Air Station, one of the Navy's largest bombing ranges, and home of the Top Gun fighter pilot training school.
But good luck getting the Navy to take responsibility or even look very hard to find out what the problem might be. Years have passed and the Navy has done next to nothing, except deny culpability and try to bully anyone who demands answers from naval brass. Apparently the Navy doesn't even care if the cancers are killing children of its own officers. The Navy has known about high levels of cancer among the children of Fallon workers and Navy officers since at least 1991; yet, the Pentagon has done little except try to conceal information on levels of pollution at the base and stiff-arm investigators.
“Our frustration level is very high,” says Brenda Gross, whose six-year old son has been sick with leukemia for two years. “This should have been found and stopped a long time ago. But you can't get anything out of the Navy.”
Local residents think they know the answer: jet fuel spills and fuel dumping by Navy aircraft. JP-8 jet fuel, a combination of kerosene and benzene, is a known carcinogen and has been linked to leukemia and other bone marrow diseases.
The Navy has summarily ruled out jet fuel as a cause of the Fallon cancers, but records from the state of Nevada show that the Fallon air base has at least 26 toxic waste sites, 16 of them contaminated by jet fuel. Most of the Fallon area is playa, a dry lakebed over shallow groundwater. According to the Geological Survey, several distinct plumes of jet fuel have entered the water table beneath the air base.
Nearby residents charge that Navy fighter pilots routinely dump excess fuel into the desert prior to landing at Fallon. The Navy says this is a rare occurrence, with emergency fuel dumps happening about three times a year. However, Navy records show that in a single instance a few years ago more than 800 gallons was dumped into the Carson playa.
In 2000 alone, according to the Navy's own statistics, Fallon-based fighters and bombers consumed 34 million gallons of jet fuel, much of it is pumped in on a jet fuel pipeline, which runs from Sparks, Nevada to Fallon. Locals and environmentalists say that the pipeline regularly leaks the poisonous gas into the desert.
Publicly, the Navy contends that the pipeline spills are minor and inconsequential, averaging less than 45 gallons a year. But two whistleblowers at the air base told Navy investigators that more than 30,000 gallons of fuel had leaked from the pipeline and from a truck in 1988 and 1989 alone. Initially, the Navy dismissed the allegations. But later admitted that there had in fact been two major spills.
While Navy officials claim that the jet fuel is not the cause of the Fallon cancers, they admit that there's been no independent monitoring of jet fuel inventories at the base, even though federal officials demanded an oversight system in 1989.
There have been persistent rumors that Navy contractors have been dumping fuel at the base in order to increase fuel purchases. Because of the lack of oversight, the Navy has almost no idea how much fuel it has on the base or where it goes. In 1990, the base commander, Captain Rex Rackowitz, admitted that he couldn't account for the whereabouts of more than 350,000 gallons of fuel.
Another source of jet fuel contamination of Fallon area water is the three old underground storage tanks. A report filed with Congress two years ago revealed that underground saltwater has seriously corroded the 45-year old tanks (each with a capacity of more than a half million gallons) and noted that the tanks lack any kind of overfill and leak protection.
“I lean toward the base as the cause,” says John Posey, a former aircraft mechanic at Fallon, whose daughter was diagnosed with leukemia in 1990. “Jet fuel dumping, radar and electronic emissions, jet fuel spills. All that is dangerous stuff.”
Despite the rising cancer rate and the deaths, the people of Fallon have gotten few answers from state and federal government. The parents of sick kids feel they are being stonewalled. “I think there's a potential cover up here,” said Richard Jernee, Adam's father. “I don't have faith in any of these people. How many kids have to die before we get to the truth?”
The jet fuel spills may well be one source of the cancers. But another study suggests that there may be a more ominous explanation. A 1994 survey of groundwater in the Fallon area by the US Geological Survey showed that 31 of 73 drinking water wells showed high concentrations of radioactive minerals. It was only revealed to the public last September by a former USGS staffer who thought it might have a bearing on the Fallon illnesses.
The radiation may in part come from depleted uranium expended by bombs and missiles at the Fallon bombing ranges. Navy statistics show that more than 7 million pounds of ordinance is dropped on the Fallon bombing ranges, including the notoriously cratered B-20 site, every year.
Now the Navy wants to move some of its Vieques bombing training missions to Fallon. It recently renewed its 20-year lease on the B-20 bombing range and acquired another 50,000 acres of BLM lands for target practice. “The Cold War is over,” says Kalynda Tilges of the Reno-based Citizen Alert. “The Navy is ignoring the consequences of its pollution, and the nation continues to throw money into a big, black hole.”
Fallon isn't the only airbase with a leukemia cluster. Seven children have recently been diagnosed with childhood leukemia in Sierra Vista, Arizona, adjacent to the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
“When are these people going to do something real?” says Floyd Sands, whose daughter Stephanie died of leukemia last year. "I haven't seen them do anything real so far.”
So much for Bush's bluster about Iraq being an international demon-state for poisoning its own people.