FALLON, Nev. — This is how tough the folks are who live here: They make jokes about the arsenic they drink.
Arsenic? It only bothers you if you're not used to it.
Fallon, population 8,300, calls itself "the Oasis of the Desert." But it's also the arsenic capital of America.
A study of EPA data from 25 states by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2000 found that Fallon's water system delivered more arsenic to its customers than any other large system, defined as one serving at least 3,300 people.
And so when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman last month rescinded a Clinton administration decision to reduce by 80% the allowable levels of arsenic in tap water, the folks here didn't blink an eye. Without complaint, generations of Fallon residents have been drinking water with arsenic levels twice as high as the old limit, and they sure don't want to pay for a $10-million treatment plant.
The EPA in 1975 set the maximum allowable amount of arsenic in tap water at 50 parts per billion. In his last week in office, President Clinton, at the urging of scientists, public health doctors and others, ordered it reduced to 10 ppb. But Whitman said the decision needed further study, and so the standard was returned to 50 ppb.
Whitman's order came as a relief to many water agencies that opposed the tougher standards because of the expense of building new treatment plants.
But that is hardly an issue here. In Fallon, about 60 miles east of Reno, water out of the faucet contains about 90 ppb of arsenic. Even before Clinton tried to lower the standard, Fallon was ordered by frustrated EPA officials to cut its arsenic levels in half by September 2003 or face fines of $27,500 a day.
EPA attorney Julie Walters said she knows of no other city in the nation that has resisted meeting the arsenic standards as much as Fallon.
"What's at stake," she said, "is the health of the people of Fallon."
State Assemblywoman Marcia DeBraga, whose district includes Fallon, wishes the city would address the arsenic problem without further delay.
"I don't know if they're in denial, or firmly believe that since Grandpa Jones drank it all his life it's not a serious problem," she said. "But they need to bite the bullet."
The nearby Naval Air Station--the navy's premier pilot combat training center--was given a similar order, and acted quickly to provide bottled water to base personnel and residents until it comes up with a long-term solution to treat its water, perhaps in conjunction with the city.
The city grudgingly has begun designing a treatment facility and is looking for ways to pay for it, perhaps through dramatically increasing water rates. But it is frustrated that it doesn't know which arsenic level it ultimately will have to meet--50 ppb or 10 ppb.
Whatever steps the city takes, they won't help residents just outside city limits who rely on private wells where the arsenic frequently reaches 700 ppb and, in some cases, more than 2,000 ppb.
Arsenic is ubiquitous in the ground water of the arid West, but is found in higher concentrations in aquifers encased in fractures of basalt that was thrust toward the Earth's surface through volcanic action, as is the case here.
Whether to avoid the arsenic--or to enjoy water free of the taste of chlorine added in the city's water tank--many people buy bottled water, or install reverse osmosis devices under their kitchen sinks. But many people claim they still drink the city water straight from the tap, noting that it didn't seem to hurt their parents or grandparents.
Mayor Ken Tedford Jr.--whose uncle and grandfather also were mayors here--said there is no support among residents for the city to construct and operate a water treatment plant. Public meetings to discuss water quality go largely unattended.
The hot-button issue in town these days is not arsenic, but rather the diagnosis in 1999 of nine Fallon children with acute lymphocytic leukemia, along with three others with the same diagnosis since 1997. The number of so-called childhood leukemia cases here is about 30 times the normal rate in the general population, and health experts are trying to determine why.
But there is little evidence to suggest that childhood leukemia is triggered by arsenic, said Dr. Randall Todd, the state epidemiologist.
Although the cases of leukemia are on everyone's mind here, arsenic remains accepted as a fact of life in the harsh Nevada environment.
"There are very, very, very few whiners in Nevada," said John Dreps, 59, a mining consultant. "Those who do have come here from somewhere else."
Added Tim Miller, 46, a heavy-equipment operator and second-generation Fallon native: "Arsenic is no biggie. I'll die of something. It's called life. Once you're born, you start dying."
Even residents who have been stricken with arsenic poisoning, or have skin cancer that may have been triggered by years of drinking arsenic-laced water, seem resigned.