Ryan Brune died on October 2, 2009. Following his death, his mother, April, spent sleepless nights online searching for ‘jet fuel,’ ‘cluster,’ and ‘glioblastoma’ in multiple combinations.
One night she found a tally of cancer cases in Churchill County, Nevada, home to a Naval Air Station. On her street in Fallon, she knew five people with cancer.
From downtown Fallon, it isn’t far before alfalfa turns to sand and rabbitbrush. The desert is omnipresent. The water originates in the Carson River which was dammed in 1915. Then, Fallon was a string of ranches tied to the river. The town never counted on water, but it always counts on wind and sand. On windy days, residents like to say, “Real estate is moving.” Other residents call Fallon a “sharing community: ‘You get a little of your neighbor’s property. They get a little of yours.”
She wrote the mayor. He never answered. She posted in a forum and a Fallon resident, a woman with a brain tumor, invited her to lunch on the condition she could remain anonymous. Her husband, from a ‘prominent’ Fallon family, disapproved of their meeting.
Hollywood movies about these sorts of cases often suggest a far different ending. With enough digging, investigators find pollution to be the cause and big money collected from the polluters is the solution. Everyone lives happily ever after and Lassie comes home again.
Think of ‘A Civil Action’ with John Travolta or Julia Roberts in the Oscar-winning part in ‘Erin Brockovich.’
Real life is usually more convoluted than movies. Cancer is complicated and has many origins, including random genetic mutations.
Some researchers even say ‘chance’ is the most reasonable explanation for a cancer cluster when man-made lines are traced around an area where cancer-cases exist.
Made famous in Hollywood’s ‘A Civil Action,’ the Woburn cluster led to an $8 million settlement from W.R. Grace.
In the Woburn case, 21 children who lived near contamination were diagnosed with leukemia between 1969 and 1986. Two city wells were closed in 1979 when solvents were found in the wells.
Despite the challenges, health departments are ethically obligated to investigate community-based cancer clusters.
In 2016, Stanford Environmental Law Journal shared an ominous warning: ”
There is an pandemic of toxic poisoning at American military bases.” Over two-thirds of almost 900 polluted Federal Superfund sites are linked to the military. Many of the sites are directly affiliated with a military base says John W. Hamilton, a Stanford law student who assisted in the report’s writing.
Among the serious offenders in the 249-page release:
Camp LeJeune, NC
Marine Corps Air Station, CA, and
Naval Air Station Fallon, NV,
One summer evening, at around 11 pm, Jeff Braccini, an aircraft mechanic at NAS and whose son had leukemia, received a phone call from Floyd Sands. Sands’ daughter had been diagnosed with leukemia as well. Sands told Braccini workers were dredging up the jet fuel pipeline by the schoolhouse.
Braccini drove to the site and found a dump truck, a backhoe and numerous white trucks stationed near a hole. Climbing out, he started taking photographs. “That’s when they got pissed and ran us off,” says Braccini.
Braccini wasn’t sure the leaking jet fuel created the cluster. But he started to question: Why didn’t investigators sample dirt from irrigation channels, the school playground and along the pipeline?
Braccini would have to build a coalition. That’s what he did, but first, he needed to immerse himself in the scientific literature to understand the causes of leukemia and what an epidemiological investigation may uncover.
In August 2002, Brenda Gross, an early supporter of Braccini’s alliance talked with Jan Schlichtmann, the attorney who contested the Woburn, MA case. The Woburn case bankrupted Schlichtmann, and he urged the Fallon parents to only use litigation as a ‘last resort.’
The families formed ‘Families in Search of the Truth,’ or FIST, to promote research.
“I wasn’t looking to find fault,” Gross said. “But the state was blind. If you follow a straight line and never veer, the needles in a haystack ar harder to find.”
The Fallon case was an investigation the Center for Disease Control (CDC) helped with. The CDC receives an average of six requests a year, but it has never been involved with a case which proved an environmental contamination to be the cause.
“The CDC was hopeful they might be able to pinpoint something,” said Martha Framsted, a spokeswoman for Nevada’s State Health Division.
All Hazards Are Not Created Equally
Not everyone who lives in a community gets exposed to identical hazards.
Historically, cancer investigations have been geographically based and have been more difficult to solve than those based on workplace exposure.
A classic example is a surgeon who, in 1775, discovered chimney sweeps were developing scrotal cancer from exposure to soot from coal.
Researchers identified, in 1965, a link between World War II-era exposure to asbestos and ship workers’ diagnosed with mesothelioma — a rare cancer of the chest and abdomen lining.
The commonality to these: the cancer was rare, and contaminant exposure was apparent.
Community-based cluster investigations don’t fit the mold.
The cluster of childhood leukemia that hit Woburn, Massachusetts is an example.
Why Not Fight In Criminal Court?
Despite criminal penalties for creating a toxic environment exist, criminal sanctions are seldom pursued. The usual course is to chase justice through civil lawsuits.
Criminal charges have to be proven against the military — beyond a reasonable doubt. A civil action merely requires a finding that the residents’ claim is ‘more likely” to be true than not.
A particular act can give rise to both criminal and civil liabilities. However, an individual, or a group of private citizens, can never ‘sue’ in criminal court. Instead, when the defendant is subject to criminal charges, the government is the plaintiff.
However, the victim of a crime may be able to bring a civil suit against the defendant based on the same actions which give rise to criminal liability.
With the government being both the plaintiff AND defendant in the Fallon case, the residents took the matter to a civil trial.
Life’s Different In The Movies
In films, it’s not always about an epidemiological investigation. It’s about a lawyer who comes in and holds a company responsible for placing anything in the environment
The people of Fallon wanted to find an answer. They needed to make sure they understand the root, but parents with sick children may not always understand the answer they are given.