Deformed Calves, Purple
Pigs Dying By 100's,
Discolored Crops
By Matt Stearns
Philadelhia Inquirer Suburban Staff
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 coordinator.
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 with investigators.
"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 land.
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 have died."
And, like Yarnall, Hallowell's corn and grass have turned an unsettling shade of purple, and they do not reach maturity.
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 year.
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," she said.
As the riddle continues unsolved in western Montgomery County, the farmers say they fear for their lives as well as their livelihoods.
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.