PIKE COUNTY, Ohio (WKRC) - On a crisp, sun-drenched day, the shadow of sadness followed Larry Farmer as he made a now-routine somber walk at Mound Cemetery in Piketon, Ohio.
Larry comes there three-to-four times a month to visit his son.
"I come in here and talk to Zach," Larry said, at a spot overlooking a tombstone with etched pictures of his son smiling in his baseball uniform.
Zach Farmer was an All-American baseball pitcher at Piketon High School and rising start at Ohio State, when his dreams of making it to the big leagues were cut down by acute myeloid leukemia.
He died in 2015, just eight days after he turned 21.
"You're never going to find peace," Larry said as he recalled the pain of losing his son.
Local 12’s investigation of radioactive contamination and cancer near the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant (PORTS) began two years ago with Zach Farmer’s story.
SEE THE STORY: Was All-American Zach Farmer’s cancer death connected to PORTS?
Zach grew up in a home near a government fence, a little more than a mile from PORTS, the Cold War-era facility that enriched uranium for America’s nuclear bombs and fuel rods.
PORTS is a massive complex that dominates the landscape in Pike County and, for people in the communities that surround it, so do cancer and death.
Larry knows he’s far from alone in suffering loss.
“Oh, you know, there’s many more,” he said. “And a lot we don’t know about.
Until now, a clear picture of the true number of deaths and cancer deaths has eluded people in Pike County because there has never been an epidemiological, or scientific, study of health incidents around PORTS.
That all changed earlier in 2022 when the Ohio Nuclear Free Network -- a nonprofit group concerned about the radioactive contamination of air, water, and soil -- hired Joseph Mangano, a renowned epidemiologist and executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project in New York.
Mangano agreed to conduct the first comprehensive epidemiological study of PORTS and its effect on Pike County.
In August, he issued a startling report, and, with the permission of the Ohio Nuclear Free Network, Local 12 was given exclusive access to it.
Local 12’s chief investigative reporter Duane Pohlman traveled to Ocean City, New Jersey to meet Mangano at a room in a library, where he could reveal on his computer how he obtained his findings.
Quickly, Mangano clicked on a page on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website titled, “CDC WONDER” , which maintains public health and mortality data from across the country.
The data about death is precise.
"These are people that actually died," Mangano said, referring to the screen of numbers.
The numbers of deaths in Pike County stunned even him.
“It is shocking,” Mangano said.
One of the biggest surprises is how low the cancer death rates were in Pike County when PORTS first began operating in the 1950s.
According to Mangano’s report, the cancer death rate in Pike County in the 50s-60s was 12% below the national average.
Mangano’s report reveals the cancer death rate shot up to 32.8% above the national average in 2019-2020.
"The fact that the change occurred from the 1950s and 60s to now, the time period of time when the Portsmouth plant operated, does raise the question, ‘What role did Portsmouth play?’” Mangano said.
Even more stunning, the cancer death rate for people under the age of 75 in Pike County from 2009-2020 is 50% higher than the rest of the country.
That places Pike County in the Top 100 in America for cancer deaths.
"Yes,” Mangano said. “There are fewer than 100 that have a higher rate than Pike."
And the most shocking part is the overall death rate in Pike County.
According to Mangano’s report, among persons ages 74 and younger, all-cause mortality in the county soared to 85% in 2017-2020, nearly twice the national rate.
"Pike is almost double the death rate," Mangano said.
That death rate in Pike County boils down to two extra (excessive) deaths a week.
“That's alarming!” said Pohlman.
“It should be to anybody who is concerned about the health of its residents,” Mangano said.
The US Department of Energy (DOE), which oversees PORTS, and other nuclear sites across the country, insists the radiation around the plant is at safe levels, and Mangano conceded that more study is needed before PORTS is directly connected to the cancer and death in Pike County.
But when asked what else could be driving the death numbers, Mangano said PORTS is an obvious candidate.
"It's got to be the leading candidate for such a dramatic and abrupt change," he said.
Back at the cemetery, Larry Farmer is not surprised by the new data that proves people in Pike County are dying at high rates.
"You knew it?" Pohlman asked.
"Yeah, so does everybody else around here,” Larry said.
And while he understands more study is needed, he says it’s clear to him what is causing those death rates to soar.
"The fallout. That's exactly what it is,” he said without blinking. “Whether it's in the water, in the land, or in the air, that's what you're getting.”