THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THING ABOUT Fallon, Nevada, population 8,300, is how ordinary it is—how old-timey and rock-ribbed. Sure, the main drag, U.S. 50, is a four-lane highway lined with modern American cheesemongers: Wal-Mart, Safeway, Taco Bell, McDonald's. But look past that gaudy facade. Stand out on Williams Avenue some morning, early, when the casino traffic is slow and the little sprinklers on every green lawn are going swish-swish-swish against the brutal, oncoming desert sun, and gaze north toward Rattlesnake Hill. There on top, hard by the municipal water tanks, stands a 50-foot-high steel crucifix. The city owns that cross, and every Good Friday since 1924 a small flock of pilgrims has journeyed from the town cemetery up to its base. Follow their route a ways and pretty soon you'll come into the old town center, built just after the Newlands Irrigation Project of 1903 diverted Truckee River water to Fallon, turning it into a patchwork of alfalfa and corn fields, the self-described "Oasis of Nevada."
Oh, what an oasis it seems. There's an Elks Club and a VFW Hall, of course, and over at the Lariat Motel the reader board blares GOD BLESS AMERICA. Good idea. The little towns of America need blessing, every one of them. But Fallon...let's just say Fallon could use something more—like a ritual cleansing. The reason is nefarious indeed: arsenic. In a nation where more than 3,000 municipalities were found in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act as recently as 1998, piping water tainted with illegal levels of pollutants ranging from lead to cryptosporidium, Fallon has a greater concentration of arsenic in its drinking water than any other town its size or larger in the United States. Its municipal reserves contain 100 parts per billion. It sounds miniscule, but that 100 ppb is toxic enough, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, to pose a 2 percent cancer risk above the national norm to anyone who spends 30 years drinking it. You can't see the poison and you can't smell it, but it's there, slowly weakening Fallonites' immune systems, and scientists are fretfully analyzing it.
The University of California at Berkeley Arsenic Health Effects Research Program is now studying the "water consumption patterns...cigarette smoking, chlorination of drinking water, diet, and occupational history" of 200 northern Nevada residents suffering from severe bladder maladies, 15 of them from the Fallon area. The Berkeley study is focused on bladder cancer—which renders patients' urine putrid, speckled with blood, and afloat with thimble-size flecks of flesh—and views arsenic as the culprit. Nevada state epidemiologist Randall Todd is also investigating whether arsenic is behind a severe increase in children's leukemia cases. Six Fallon-area children were diagnosed with the disease between March and July of last year; no other rural Nevada county has ever reported more than one case in a year. "Fallon," pronounces Jon Merkle, an EPA environmental scientist, "is the Mount Everest of arsenic situations. No other U.S. city comes close."
Well, almost. According to a recent Natural Resources Defense Council list (dubbed "Arsenic and Old Laws"), the University of Oklahoma in Norman comes in with the second-highest arsenic level, at 78 ppb, followed closely by Cheney, Kansas, at 65 ppb. The Berkeley folks are also studying 200 bladder cancer patients in Kings County, northern California, where arsenic levels reach 50 ppb. But no other community is situated on top of a water source as toxic as the Basalt Aquifer, a 15-mile-long underground pool that sloshes through the arsenic-rich rock beneath Fallon.
Still, Mayor Ken Tedford is the picture of small-town placidity. An ample, genial fellow, he sips his coffee out of a white mug labeled—you guessed it—MAYOR. Sometimes he comes to the office straight from his tire shop down the street, wearing his Goodyear Tires shirt. He's so respected, he ran unopposed in the last election. At the moment, however, the mayor is perspiring. I'm asking him if he drinks the water.
"Look," he says, "I drink the water, and I'm more at risk from the Diet Pepsi I drink all day. People have been drinking a little arsenic here for a long time."
It's true. Arsenic is common throughout the arid mining country of the West and is laced through the soil of the Great Plains, New England, and central California. In fact, 22 million Americans drink arsenic-tainted groundwater every day. And now, more than 26 years after President Gerald Ford signed the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA is finally coming to their aid. By June 21, 2001, the agency is expected to lower its limit for what it considers a safe level of arsenic in drinking water from 50 to 5 parts per billion.
Water providers, both public and private, won't have to bear the cost of this decree immediately. Large providers—those serving 10,000 or more users—will need to comply with the new arsenic standard by 2004; smaller providers, like Fallon's Municipal Water Department, will have until 2006. What's more, the EPA currently has $4.6 billion, allocated by Congress, to loan to communities that need to upgrade. But with more than 6,000 water suppliers, most of them rural, faced with having to install new systems to filter or dilute their water, the costs will escalate quickly. The EPA estimates that the necessary changes will cost the suppliers and their clients $374 million annually for the next 20 years.
Fallon is already feeling the financial squeeze. In a stern letter last August, the EPA informed Mayor Tedford that Fallon must meet the current standard of 50 ppb—in other words, build a filtration plant costing between $7 and $10 million—by September 2003 or face fines of up to $27,500 per day. The city has pledged to meet the new limits and has already secured $1.4 million in federal funding, but building and operating a new treatment plant could cost each household as much as $3,000 over the next 20 years. No matter what they end up doing—raising citizens' water bills, issuing a bond, or appealing to the EPA for more loans—it's going to be expensive.
"With a timetable like theirs, don't you think they're just trying to punish a small-town mayor?" Mayor Tedford peers up at me, his brown eyes as soft and plaintive as a wounded badger's. "If we build this plant, our water bills skyrocket. We lose the Oasis of Nevada. Our town turns to dust."
I ask the mayor how he'd feel if some of his neighbors died of arsenic poisoning before Fallon's filtration plant was finished. "It won't happen," he says. "Arsenic isn't a health problem here. I mean, where are all the dead bodies?"
Tedford's answers sound rehearsed—or worse, callous and evasive—but they are based on an unwavering loyalty. After all, his grandfather, a mulepacker who emigrated to Fallon from Nova Scotia in 1911, was one of the town's earliest mayors, and his uncle also served in the post. How could the current Mayor Tedford concede that the water coming down from the Old Rugged Cross is poison? How could anyone? In the only vote Fallon has ever held on arsenic, a 1979 ballot measure that asked if residents wanted a filtration plant, 95 percent voted no.
"My wife drank this water through four pregnancies, and all of my children are fine," the mayor says. Our time is up. He stands to guide me to the door, then stops to point out a photo of himself looking somewhat starstruck and goofy-grinned beside four hoary men, his mayoral predecessors. "Now, if arsenic was really a problem," he asks, "don't you think these guys would have done something about it?"