No buried barrels of sludge found at Missouri tannery

Monday, August 10, 2009 | 5:12 p.m. CDT; updated 5:34 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 10, 2009

KANSAS CITY —Investigators say they didn't find any of the steel barrels that a former Prime Tanning employee said were buried at the St. Joseph tannery nearly 25 years ago.

The tannery, purchased by National Beef Co. in March and renamed National Beef Leathers, is the focus of an investigation to determine if sludge distributed to northwest Missouri farmers for use as fertilizer could have caused brain tumors in Cameron-area residents.

The Department of Natural Resources said Monday that there also weren't any barrels on land near Agency; DNR had received a report that barrels from the tannery were buried there.

"While we appreciate and rely on citizen concerns to identify issues that need to be addressed, in neither case did investigators find evidence of barrels that had been reported buried," Alice Geller, DNR's acting field services division director, said in a statement.

A lawsuit was filed in April on behalf of two Cameron-area residents against Prime Tanning, which had been giving sludge to farmers for use as fertilizer since 1983. Studies conducted since then in three of the four counties found trace amounts of hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen also known as chromium 6. But environmental officials said last month that the levels of the chemical were not high enough to threaten human health.

Three agencies — DNR, Environmental Protection Agency and Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services — announced Monday that new soil testing would likely begin later this month on farmland where tannery sludge had been applied as fertilizer.

EPA spokesman Chris Whitley said the new testing would encompass more farms where sludge had been applied but was not an indication that anything had changed since the agencies announced preliminary findings last month.

"It is the next phase of an investigation," he said.

Whitley said surveyors could only go on land where farmers had given permission to test and because some had requested that testing wait until their crops were harvested, the process could take a couple of months.

DNR spokesman Larry Archer said such large-scale testing of the region's farm fields for chromium 6 was unprecedented and required new protocols on how to conduct the survey.

He said the tests were in response to concerns in DeKalb County, which includes Cameron, about an outbreak of brain tumors that state health officials have said does not constitute a cancer cluster.

"We were not expecting to find any chromium," Archer said. "Since we found some, we need to really get out there and try to get a broader picture of the extent of chromium in those fields."

Chromium 6 is the same carcinogen that led to a $333 million settlement from Pacific Gas & Energy in 1996 for exposing a California town to the chemical. The case spawned the movie "Erin Brockovich," about a woman who fought the utility and helped with the settlement.

Brockovich has appeared in Cameron to talk about the dangers of hexavalent chromium and to announce the lawsuit, which she is advising, against the tannery.

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