New Suit Filed in Missouri Over Chemical in Farmland Sludge

April 24, 2009

Farmers in four northwest Missouri counties may have unwittingly dumped millions of pounds of carcinogen-laced sludge on their fields, which may be linked to a rash of brain tumors in the area, environmental activist Erin Brockovich told a worried group of residents.

Brockovich, joined by an environmental investigator and lawyers who filed suit in the case, said farmers in Andrew, Buchanan, DeKalb and Clinton counties have used the sludge from Prime Tanning Corp. of St. Joseph for fertilizer since 1983.

Brockovich met in Cameron with about 400 people hours after the lawsuit was filed against Prime Tanning and others, alleging that the fertilizer contained high levels of hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6, which is a carcinogen.

Kansas City-based National Beef Packing Co. acquired Prime Tanning Leathers Co. last month and renamed it National Beef Leathers Co., which also is named in the suit.

Neither Prime Tanning nor National Beef Packing returned calls seeking comment Wednesday.

Brockovich told residents the situation is serious, but that they need to react with determination to stop National Beef Leathers from distributing the sludge and to pressure state officials to end the situation.

“I don’t want everyone to panic and think they have to move out of Cameron tomorrow. You don’t,” she said. “This is the time to embrace yourself as a community, become proactive as a community and protect each other.”

The lawsuit and meeting were the latest developments in a long investigation into what some people believe is an unusually high number of brain tumors in the Cameron area. State and federal officials have investigated several different sites and found some high levels of chemicals, but none high enough to cause illness.

The Environmental Protection Agency worked with the state earlier in investigating the possible causes and presence of a tumor cluster. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., whose district includes the Cameron area, has written to the EPA asking that it examine what he called the new evidence on the sources of hexavalent chromium.

The lawsuit was the first time the tannery had been publicly identified as a potential source of trouble.

The lawsuit was filed in Clinton County Circuit Court in Cameron on behalf of William Kemper of Cameron and Janet Lasher of Gallatin.

Kemper’s wife, Karen, died last May at the age of 44 from complications from a brain tumor. Lasher was diagnosed in February with lung cancer that has spread to her brain. Both plaintiffs were exposed to hexavalent chromium from the sludge because of their proximity to its application on farmland, the suit contends.

Brian Madden, who is handling the case for Kansas City law firm Wagstaff Cartmell, stressed to the crowd that Cameron’s water supply was not contaminated. And he said his firm has no plans to sue the farmers.

“None of the farmers knew, or should have known, that the sludge they were using had this chemical in it,” he said.

Bob Bowcock, an environmental investigator from Claremont, Calif., said the tannery told the Missouri Department of Agriculture that the sludge contained chromium, which is not a carcinogen, but did not mention the chromium 6.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources had not found any data on the sludge in a review of 30 years of records regarding Prime Tanning, department communications director Susanne Medley said.

Bowcock said chromium 6 endangers nearby residents when it becomes airborne as the fields are tilled. The chemical can cause all types of cancer and autoimmune diseases such as lupus, he said.

The investigation is in its early stages and much needs to be done, Bowcock said, but it was important to bring the information to the area now.

“We want the land application material still out there in windrows picked up now,” he said. “And we want the state to order Prime Tannery to not allow another truck off that property with that material in it. That’s the best protection we can offer today.”

Bowcock said the chemical may have contaminated shallow groundwater acquifers but no tests have been conducted to prove that.

Jim Frasher of Cameron, who has been battling a brain tumor since January of 2008, said he once owned a farm where the sludge was used and had wandered around on several farms where it was used “thinking it was all right.”

“All the farmers know about it because it’s free fertilizer,” Frasher said. “I hope in a way that’s what caused it. I’m a little skeptical because I’ve been around the stuff for years, but then again, I had a tumor. So who knows?”

Bowcock worked with Brockovich in a 1996 case also involving high levels of hexavalent chromium. That case prompted a $333 million settlement from Pacific Gas & Energy for exposing a California town to the chemical. Brockovich became famous after the case was made into a movie.

Associated Press reporter Bill Draper in Kansas City contributed to this report.

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