Dead Muskrats and Other Foul-Outs
Excerpted from the 1-19-1990 Daily Sparks, Nev., Tribune

Look for continued splatterings from the Fallon Naval Air Station fuel spills. While researching a column on wildlife kills over a year ago, I was told the Navy hired a graveyard shift ditchtender to dispose of dead muskrats. (Maybe they died from eating Navy cooking.)

The theory goes that somebody didn't want embarrassing questions asked about dead critters in a canal which runs through jet refueling areas and down to the Stillwater Wildlife Refuge, scene of mysterious wholesale animal kills since 1987.

In a February, 1989, Barbwire column, I told of fisherman chased away from an area a few miles from the wildlife die-offs – by uniformed men with rifles. They might have gotten too close to what was termed "some military installation upstream."

The sportsmen were too frightened to say more.

SHERLOCK HOLMES IS DEAD: Lawmen have recently been investigating a federal employee for shooting mustangs via helicopter. I put the following on the Barbwire on February 17, 1989: "Some of the people who've called me have uttered dark theories about helicopter gunships using critters for moving targets…The big kills have been in very remote areas, nowhere near established roads…When horses are spooked, they 'blackbird,' scattering quickly in all directions. Men on horseback simply could not catch them or shoot very many…One guy believes most of the above, but figures it's probably yahoo BLM employees rather than military men."

I also reported receiving this phone message, taken down by a secretary in the fall of 1988: "Wild horses have been shot by military helicopters. Area between Austin and Tonopah called the triangle. This man knows about it because he's worked on these helicopters."

I wish that person would call me back.

Did Naval Air Station Fallon Bury Live Animals?
From the front page of the 1-22-1990 Daily Sparks, Nev., Tribune

The thought of burying animals alive is almost unspeakable. According to stories seeping out of Fallon, Naval Air Station brass not only ordered the unspeakable, but ordered it kept unspoken.

Muskrats, ducks, doves pheasants and quail were buried alive under orders from Navy officers, charges one sailor I'll call Popeye.

As I reported last week, I heard a year ago that the Navy had removed dead muskrats from a canal bank in an attempt to low-key some fuel spills. I had been checking out tips for a story I wrote last February about unexplained animal deaths around the state. I told of fishermen chased by uniformed riflemen from an area a few miles from the Stillwater marsh wildlife die-offs. The sportsmen thought they might have gotten too close to "some military installation upstream."

Sailors who witnessed Navy fuel spills and cleanup attempts have been threatened with prosecution should they reveal details. Apparently, just about anything can be stamped "classified" so that talking about it can be construed as a breach of national security. The potential legal hassles are "pretty effective at keeping personnel and ex-personnel mouths shut," Popeye says.

"I was basically told to keep my mouth shut or I'd lose my job," says whistleblower Ray Lashure, a civilian base employee. I'm sure vital national security interests are at stake here. God only knows what the Russians could do with the knowledge that our Navy is incompetent, not that they don't already have a pretty good idea after our guys bombed their own ship last year. They crashed jets onto carriers, had men swept overboard and managed to blow up the battleship Iowa's gun turret. Things got so bad that the Navy actually went out of business for several days to assess safety procedures.

Winston Churchill, a longtime head of the British admiralty, once likened his political opposition to an iceberg, "90 percent below water, 10 percent above water and 100 percent at sea." Naval Air Station Fallon currently looks a lot like Churchill's iceberg, especially the below water part.

Four months before the big jet fuel spill of '88, another incident took place at NAS Fallon. It received a bit of publicity and was quickly forgotten. The difference between the two is that the Navy grudgingly admitted the late '87 incident after a little media prodding. The alleged February '88 spill still doesn't officially exist.

About 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 3, 1987, a tow-tractor, with headlights off, pulled an F-14 Tomcat jet fighter along a runway. The tractor operator was listening to his Sony Walkman, according to Popeye. A 17-ton fuel truck approached, piloted by a bleary-eyed driver. Whatever could go wrong, did. The multi-million dollar jet's wing punctured the fuel truck's tank, spilling at least some 2,000 gallons of caustic toxics onto the runway.

Popeye thinks it was much more than that.

"I saw a half-mile stretch of canal inundated with JP-5 jet fuel. It had to have been a significant amount, 5,000 to 6,000 gallons" and possibly more, he told me.

"Common sense would dictate that it's easier to clean up concrete than a canal that leads to Stillwater. They washed the fuel into the canal purposely so as no to disturb the flight operations," Popeye recalls.

The jet fuel is very toxic, he adds. "It's thick, with an oily base. If it seeps into your skin, you'll get blood poisoning from it. It will blind you."

Apparently, it also blinded and severely injured the canal critters that landed in it. Popeye says the base's top brass reviewed the situation and ordered him and his superior to bury the animals.

That's where this fable takes a Twilight Zone twist. Some animals were still alive. Popeye asked for permission so shoot them first. His superiors said "we have been told the bury them, not kill them."

According to Popeye, asking for clarification of orders was not tolerated. No one had the guts to ask the boss about the critters out of their misery before burial in shallow graves.

Popeye tried another angle. "Let's make a training exercise out of this and wash the animals. We can use the base gym, the showers are set up for it. We can lay plastic on the floors."

That idea was shot down, too.

"The animals had absorbed it (fuel) to the extent that cleaning each bird would have taken many hours. At that point, they were blind anyway," Popeye says.

"Media is the plural of mediocrity."

— Jimmy Breslin

He refused to shovel dirt on the twitching, suffering critters. He says he witnessed two mass burials and was told of a third. After "80 to 100 sailors worked around the clock" cleaning up for several days, Popeye says they were given a pep talk by the now-cheerful brass – and "orders not to speak to any department of wildlife people, state EPA or media."

Popeye says his comrades-in-arms were revulsed by similar live-burial duty at the February '88 non-spill.

Ed Friel, a former civilian employee at the base, says that burying live animals "wouldn't surprise me." He wonders at the timing of the spills. "Look how close it was to the animal die-offs."

A fuel truck driver, Friel says he was ordered to clean up a February 2, 1989, spill with a "dust pan and a five-gallon bucket."

Friel, 35, says he now suffers from chemically-induced toxic hepatitis, is developing cataracts on his eyes and has a body full of poisons.
"I can't wait for a hydrologic study of Stillwater," Friel says hopefully.

Bob Fulkerson, head of the Citizen Alert watchdog organization, says he'll get a water study done if the government won't. Both Friel and Lashure are planning lawsuits.

In 1987, longtime Stillwater rancher Ira "Hammy" Kent said "It seems to me that every time something dies off, they blame agriculture first because they don't want to blame anyone else."

We should start listening to that kind of wisdom. The Southern Pacific rail yard in Sparks has been leaking fuel into the groundwater for decades. Number-two diesel, like that at the railroad yard, has been found in the nearby Helms gravel pit, which drains into the Truckee River. A little further east at Patrick, 35,000 tons of polluted soil from a California rail yard sits on the banks of the Truckee, closer yet to Pyramid Lake and Stillwater.

"What they're doing (at the base) is wrong," Lashure says.

"They're poisoning our planet unless we stop them.

UPDATE (8-23-2004): I contacted NAS Fallon officials about the above story, but they did not call back for a week or so. We traded phone calls, but I never did link up with their PR person.

On the same day this column ran, Tribune reporter Paul AlLee contacted the base for a comment on a news story which ran just above this piece on page one. No one was made available to talk to the Tribune.

"Earlier this month, the Navy denied that the massive spill occurred," AlLee wrote, "but base officials last week admitted up to 350,000 gallons of jet fuel were unaccounted for in 1987 and 1988."

Perhaps Popeye's estimates were a tad conservative.

AND A PERSONAL NOTE: Posting this story all these years down the road demands a tribute in fond remembrance to Reno Gazette-Journal reporter Michael Phillis, who performed heroically in breaking story after story on the Fallon fuel spills and convincing the whistleblowers to go on the record. Mike died young of a heart attack in his early 40's, just a couple of years later. As I recall, Ray Lashure passed away along about the same time.

Thank you, guys. You did good.

Be well. Raise hell.



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Andrew Barbano is a 35-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of and Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.

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