- Deformed calves. Discolored crops. Purple
pigs dying by the hundreds, then decomposing quickly.
- It isn't some Old Testament pestilence.
It's a here-and-now mystery that has driven one farmer in western Montgomery
County out of business and has others in the area scared for their own
businesses -- and for their health.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
officials will visit at least four farms today as part of a continuing
effort to figure out what is going on, said Carrie Deitzel, an EPA community-involvement
- Thus far, the long series of reported
problems, first noted in the early 1990s, has confounded environmental
and agricultural officials. The EPA did its most recent round of soil and
water testing on the farms in January, and more tests will be run in the
next few weeks.
- "The data we've got back so far
do not indicate any kind of environmental or human health emergency out
there," Deitzel said. "We're looking at what needs to be done
from here on out."
- Deitzel acknowledged that the lack of
environmental danger did not mean the lack of an environmental problem.
And the problem does not appear to be restricted to these parts.
- "This isn't an isolated thing,"
said Lynn Campbell Wingert, an EPA spokeswoman. "Throughout the mid-Atlantic
region, farm animals are dying, and we don't know why. We're going to make
any connection we can to figure out what is going on here."
- One farmer, Wayne Hallowell of Douglass
Township, said there was no real way to know how many farms were involved
locally because it was unlikely every farmer would be willing to cooperate
- "A lot of farmers with something
wrong won't tell anyone," Hallowell said. "They don't want the
government coming in and shutting them down, or they're trying to sell
their land. They're very tight-lipped on that."
- But problems there are -- enough that
Tom Yarnall, a farmer for 30 years, finally gave up raising pigs on his
Gilbertsville spread. Yarnall still grows some corn, but spends most of
his time these days as a carpenter.
- "I had almost 1,000 pigs when this
thing started," Yarnall said. "In the spring of '92, it all went
downhill. We had whole litters die when they were born."
- More than 200 pigs died during a two-month
period in 1993, Yarnall said.
- All displayed similar symptoms: turning
a purplish color, with newborns just not growing to maturity.
- His crops also turned purple, and have
been stunted for several years, Yarnall said. "The yields are way
down," he said. "They just don't do well."
- The pigs' bodies decomposed in about
half the normal time, Yarnall said. Generally, dead pigs decompose in two
to seven days, depending on the surrounding climate and other variables,
said Arlen Wilbers, a large-animal veterinarian at the Quakertown Veterinary
Clinic who examined livestock at Yarnall's farm.
- "Whatever was in their system broke
down their fat," Yarnall said. "They'd turn into slop."
- Kenneth Kephart, an associate professor
of animal science at Pennsylvania State University, investigated the goings-on
at Yarnall's farm.
- "We went at it from a lot of different
directions, and unfortunately we came up with zero," Kephart said.
"Whatever it was seemed to be pretty persistent. It's extremely rare
that you can't find at least some evidence of what's going on." Kephart
added that livestock management might have accounted for some of the problems.
- But Yarnall is not the only local farmer
facing unexplained and unusual disease among his livestock.
- Merrill Mest said he had had a decade's
worth at his farm, just a few miles from Yarnall's.
- "I've had health problems with cows,"
Mest said. "They just waste away. They don't grow right. Couldn't
live, couldn't die. Kind of in-between."
- Other cows on Mest's farm have had displaced
stomachs and cystic ovaries, he said.
- "My vet says I have a lot more problems
than I should," Mest said. "But nobody knows why."
- Wilbers, who is also Mest's veterinarian,
said that some of the problems again might be chalked up to livestock management.
- "Some of the stuff kind of rings
true" as being caused by external problems, Wilbers said. "But
there's nothing I could specifically say. Nothing seems to crop up"
as a definitive cause.
- Down the road at Hallowell's dairy farm,
three deformed calves were born in a year and a half in the mid-1990s
-- after nearly 50 years without any deformed calves being born on the
- One newborn calf weighed three times
the typical birth weight. Another was born with both a testicle and a vagina.
A third was born without a neck, without a tail and with reversed leg joints.
- During the same period, Hallowell said,
several calves on his farm would not grow.
- "They more or less just deteriorated
on us," he said. "If we hadn't gotten rid of them, they would
- And, like Yarnall, Hallowell's corn and
grass have turned an unsettling shade of purple, and they do not reach
- State and federal officials say they
have not given up searching for answers. State Department of Environmental
Protection spokesman Pete Trosini said the agency would review its old
records on the farms' problems in search of "any inconsistencies or
anything that might raise a red flag."
- And in today's visits, farmers will be
asked to offer their suggestions.
- "We'll basically talk to them to
see what their specific concerns are, and see if they have specific places
on the farms they want included in the sampling plan," Deitzel said.
- Hallowell said he suspected radiation
poisoning, citing the Cabot Corp. chemical plant in Boyertown, just a few
miles from his farm.
- The Cabot plant uses a wide variety of
chemicals in its operations, and was listed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
(NRC) in 1992 as one of 46 sites in the United States with serious and
long-term radioactive contamination that required accelerated cleanup.
- "The Boyertown site had stored in
mausoleums 25,000 tons of residue product from their operations,"
said Michael Lamastra, a senior project manager with the NRC.
- Lamastra said the Cabot plant was removed
from the NRC list after the contaminants were transferred offsite last
- And he said the Cabot site was on the
list only because of the high cost of moving so much radioactive waste,
not because of a perceived health or environmental danger.
- Cabot officials said that the levels
of radiation were low, and that the storage methods were proper.
- "I'm not aware of any incidents
that could have contributed to these types of problems," said Tony
Campitelli, the plant's manager of environmental affairs.
- The EPA probably will look into Cabot's
environmental record and practices as part of its investigation, Deitzel
said. But, she noted, neither DEP nor NRC had reported problems with the
firm's Boyertown plant.
- The unexpected consequences that result
when industrial refuse and farms get too close to each other could provide
an explanation, said Sarah Caspar, who is the EPA's on-site coordinator
for an area in Parkersburg, W.Va., that also has seen unexplained livestock
deaths. The affected farms in that area are near a chemical company's landfill.
- "Part of me has this feeling that
as time has passed since industrialization, things that people weren't
aware of may be coming to the fore because of time and accumulation,"
- As the riddle continues unsolved in western
Montgomery County, the farmers say they fear for their lives as well as
- Yarnall, 60, and Hallowell, 44, both
complained of aches, pains and memory loss over the last few years. Hallowell
said he would like to keep farming. He also wants answers.
- "If I could just get things back
to normal around here," he said. "Or if it's that deadly, let
me know so I can sell out and move someplace else. I don't want cancer,
I don't want my kids getting cancer. I don't know whom to trust."
- ©1999 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.