America's Little (Well...) Actually Kind of Serious (Um...) Maybe It's Worse Than We Thought (Hmmm...) Pretty Damn Big (Gulp!) Arsenic Problem

Meet the proud residents of the nation's arsenic capital. Now, will someone please explain to these good people why poison's a bad thing?

Feb 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

TO WHICH THE CITIZENRY responds: Not so fast, EPA man. Antifederalism is something of a local tradition in Fallon. The town's earliest pioneers came from back East, New Englanders drawn to Nevada's Lahontan Valley in the early 1900s by the U.S. Reclamation Service, whose Newlands Irrigation Project promised "boundless opportunities" for farmers willing to charm potatoes, carrots, asparagus, and celery out of the desert. The promise was bogus. The soil turned saline, the crops were scraggly, and the yeomanry got riled. By 1915, Fallon farmers seriously considered forming a militia to wrest control of the dams and canals along the Truckee and Carson Rivers from the federal government. A handful of farmers and ranchers managed to eke out a living, and still do; nowadays they sardonically refer to the feds as "the Mafia."

But walking the streets of Fallon one morning, I found that, to many locals, poison is not funny. "I don't even give this water to my dog," said one shop owner. Inside the Overland Hotel, a woman slumped on a bar stool and sucking on a cigarette told me she bathes her three-year-old in bottled water. A motel desk clerk protested that even though he only showers in the local water, the skin on his hands is always dry and cracking; at times it bleeds. "I feel nothing but itching all over my body," he said.

None of these people would give their names, perhaps for good reason. Every day, the Lahontan Valley News runs a column called Sound Off!, in which the vitriolic remarks made by anonymous callers to a voice-mail box at the paper are printed for all to read. Arsenic is a favorite topic in Sound Off!, and worrywarts a favorite target. In one recent issue, for instance, when a reader reported losing his or her mother to arsenic poisoning, a subsequent caller asked to see a copy of the autopsy report, adding, "There has never been a reported fatality from arsenic in the city water system." Another caller flatly averred that Fallon is getting "shafted" by the EPA.

No doubt both of these social theoreticians are fans of Dr. Gary Ridenour, an internist whose office sits on the south end of town. Ridenour is something of a cult hero in Fallon. When he first moved to Nevada from St. Louis 18 years ago, his only claim to fame was being the primary care physician for the late wrestling great André the Giant. He has since gained some notoriety. In 1993, a federal grand jury accused him of illegally distributing diazepam, the antianxiety drug best known by the brand name Valium, and of owning an unregistered sawed-off shotgun. Ridenour stood his ground. "I'm not guilty and I'm going fishing," he told the Lahontan Valley News that July. One hundred and fifty people called him to offer support. After he pleaded guilty to the illegal distribution charge a year later, his appointment book remained full.

Dr. Gary, as he is known, is a short, stout 53-year-old with a wispy beard and a wry grin. When I visited him one afternoon in his office, he had a set of prepared remarks scrawled on a legal pad—a spiel he has no doubt recited many times before, but with no less glee. Ridenour does not dispute that Fallon has arsenic in its water; he disputes the EPA's claims that the toxin needs to be regulated. "The feds want to control our lives," he announced, a pair of reading glasses riding low on his nose. "This arsenic scare—it's just big government trying to tell locals how to take care of their citizens. It's bad medicine."

On the bookshelf behind him, Dr. Gary had a collection of snake oil bottles—a shrine featuring Hamlin's Wizard Oil and The Great Doctor Kilmer's Swamp Root. Next to that hung a chilling poster depicting a Nazi SS officer and a gun-toting official from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms wearing identical snarls. Its caption: "Poland, Warsaw Ghetto, 1944. America, Waco, Texas, 1993."

"Arsenic!" Ridenour blurted. "It's ridiculous. In 18 years of office visits, 30 patients a day, I've never seen anyone test high for arsenic. I've checked the blood serum on 200 people—nothing. If they want to address a real health problem here, why don't they go out to Sand Springs Mountain, 30 miles away, and clean up the two pounds of unexploded plutonium left from the underground nuclear test they did in 1963? They don't do that because that would cost too much money. This arsenic thing, it's an easy kill for them. They just go into a few rural communities and say, 'Shut down your wells.' And then—bingo!—they've got a high-profile victory."

The doctor had a point. Fifty years ago, the U.S. government laid claim to huge swaths of Nevada desert, bombed it, littered it with radioactive waste, and turned it into a top-secret playground for "black ops" (see Area 51). Considering the proximity of Sand Springs Mountain, one would think the government would have tested Fallon's water for traces of plutonium. Apparently not. According to the EPA's Jon Merkle, plutonium testing is not required, so no one's done it.

"Here in Nevada," Ridenour said, "there used to be a group called NEVER: Nevadans Ever Vigilant, Ever Resistant. That spirit, I think, is still alive. The water here is safe. I drink it every day and my only complaint is that it makes scotch and water taste, well, a little off." He paused, smirking at me over his reading glasses.

"Off?" I said.

Ridenour tipped his head back slightly, like a wine connoisseur searching for the mot juste. "It's just... a little blunter," he said. "That's it—it's blunter."

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