- Last June, Adam Jernee died from acute lymphocytic leukemia,
a remorselessly fast-moving cancer of the blood. He was 8-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 to 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 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 to stiff-arm investigators.
- "Our frustration level is very high," says
Brenda Gross, who 6-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 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,
Cpt. 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 are 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
- "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 or 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
- 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
- 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.