Article: Deadly oil spray imperils dream farm

Originally published in the Democrat and Chronicle
Rochester, NY, Monday, September 6, 1976
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When she was 6 years old, Andrea Piatt lived in the best of all possible worlds. She loved horses and lived with her mother and an older sister on a farm near Moscow Mills, MO., where 130 horses were stabled. She liked cats and 12 of them roamed around the farm. And she had five dogs to play with in the big barn and horse arena named “Shenandoah” that had been built by her mother, Judy Piatt, and Frank Hampel, her mother’s business partner.

The barn was quite large and covered and enclosed a big arena used for horse shows and rodeos. Lots of people came from all the neighboring counties to attend the shows and for a little girl, show days, with their crowds, noise and excitement, were sheer heaven.

Then on May 21, 1971, Andrea Piatt’s heaven turned into hell.
On that day, a truck drove up to the farm and sprayed the earthen arena floor with about 2,000 gallons of what Mrs. Piatt and Hampel were told was salvaged motor oil, used to keep dust from blowing around.

Three days later, the little birds that always flew around in the rafters of the arena started fluttering down to the floor and dying there. A week later, hundreds of the dead birds had to be swept from the arena floor and two horses became ill and died. Within the next two weeks, 12 more horses showed the same symptoms and within a few weeks a total of 45 horses had died at the Piatt stable and 18 other horses had died at two other stables that had also been sprayed.
* * *
TWO CATS WENT next and, by the middle of June, all of the cats and dogs were dead. From then on, until the middle of the next year, every other animal that had either wandered into the barn or was brought there died or became seriously ill. And no flies or birds were ever seen in the barn. Indeed, all the birds in the area seemed to avoid even coming close to the farm.

Within two weeks after the oil spraying, Mrs. Piatt and Hampel began to feel ill, suffering from headaches, nausea and diarrhea. Andrea’s sister, then 10, also complained about feeling unwell, a feeling which gradually went away as she stopped frequenting the arena area.

But Andrea loved the arena and had always played on its floor. At that point, the Piatt family hadn’t made any connection between Andrea’s relatively mild illness and the arena so they did not prevent her from playing there. In early August, Andrea began telling her mother she wasn’t feeling well and by Aug. 21. she had become desperately ill and had to be hospitalized immediately, suffering bladder pain, diarrhea, bloody urine and headaches. The doctors at the hospital in St. Louis were so puzzled by her symptoms that they called for help from the Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta, since they assumed, correctly as it turned out, that her sickness was linked to all the other events at the arena.

By this time, everyone involved—the doctors, the veterinarians who treated the animals and the families—suspected that something in the waste oil had caused all the death and illness. But no one could pinpoint what.

* * *

AND THE disease center’s team of physicians, toxicologists and other specialists weren’t successful, either. They, too, had a hunch the oil was the cause but were unable to discover what the toxic agent had been. As a precaution, though, they advised that the dirt in the arena be dug out and replaced to a depth of eight inches and that all the areas touched by the oil be scrubbed or replaced. The team took soil samples back with them to Atlanta for further laboratory testing.

Meanwhile, Andrea was being treated symptomatically but her recovery was slow and no one knows now whether she will suffer ill effects in future years. Her mother had a stroke and Hampel developed arthritic knees, somewhat like the symptoms of the dead horses. No one knows whether their ailments were related to the toxic substance in the oil spray.

At the Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta, the mystery at Shenandoa[h] continued to baffle scientists despite the battery of tests that were run. Then, one day late in 1974, one of the chemists working on the case was discussing it with a colleague, Dr. Renate Kimbrough, who hadn’t been at the center when the case first came in. He told her he had found some crystals in the soil samples from the arena that puzzled him. Dr. Kimbrough, who had been trained in Germany, remembered reading about the dioxin TCDD there and suggested that perhaps the soil samples should be checked for that.

* * *

SHE PROPOSED doing the checking herself and employed the methods that had been used in Germany, materials suspected of being contaminated with TCDD were applied to the ears of a rabbit, which are very sensitive to TCDD. If TCDD was present, the rabbit’s ears would develop the symptoms of chloracne, a condition that causes disfiguring pitting of the skin. These symptoms were experienced by Dow workers during the 1960s when they were exposed to some stray TCDD.

An extract from the soil samples was prepared and Dr. Kimbrough applied it to the rabbit.

“The rabbit died,” she says, “so obviously the TCDD was there, especially since the rabbit’s ears had quickly developed the typical symptoms.”

The disease center team returned immediately to Moscow Mills, and since they knew the cause of the outbreak now, they were able to reconstruct what had happened.

They discovered that the ultimate source of the TCDD had been a chemical plant in Verona, MO, 350 miles from Moscow Hills.

Originally, the Verona plant had been operated by a company that produced Agent Orange, the dioxin-contaminated defoliant used by the United States in Vietnam. The TCDD by-product of that operation had been converted into solid waste and sent to Louisiana where it was incinerated.

Then the Pentagon ended the use of Agent Orange and the chemical herbicide manufacturer sold the entire plant to company that planned to use it for the manufacture of hecachlorophene, the antiseptic. TCDD is an inevitable by-product of hexachlorophene manufacture, too.

* * *

BUT THE new owners of the Verona plant were having financial difficulties and couldn’t afford the expense of solidifying the dioxin wastes and having them hauled to Louisiana. So, instead, they just tapped the wastes off into a tank at the plant. The tank still holds 4,500 gallons of oil heavily contaminated with TCDD.

Then the new owners contracted with a waste disposal company to dispose of the wastes, agreeing to pay $1,500 a tank-truck load for taking the materials out of the tank and getting rid of it. The disposal company, in turn, subcontracted with the Bliss Oil Co. to remove the waste oil and agreed to pay Bliss $125 per tank truck load, plus allowing Bliss to keep the waste oil to dispose of as it chose. Both Russell Bliss, head of Bliss Oil, and the original contractor assert they were not told about the dangerous nature of the waste oils.

And so one day in late May, 1971, the Bliss Oil driver took his truck up to Verona and hauled away a load of the heavily contaminated waste oil. He brought the oil back to the company’s storage facilities in St. Louis, where it was dumped into a tank with other waste oils. In the following week, the oil in that tank was used to spray three horse arenas, including Shenandoah, on the farm where Andrea Piatt lived.

At the two other arenas sprayed with the toxic wastes, animals died and two other children became sick. But the children there didn’t get quite as ill as Andrea, apparently because they didn’t spend as much time in the contaminated area, and the horses’ deaths went unaccounted for at the time.

Ironically, even some of Bliss’ own chickens were contaminated. On one farm owned by Bliss, and dumped [during] the trip, the truckdriver was stopped and ticketed by a highway policeman for being overweight. So, fearful he would get another ticket, he drove to a nearby farm owned by Bliss and dumped the excess oil on the roadway to the farm. Within a few days, a whole batch of Bliss’ chickens died.

* * *

NOW, OF COURSE, everyone knows what happened and the first of the lawsuits, filed by Mrs. Piatt in 1971, will go to trial in October. But the chemical company that put the TCDD by-product into the waste tank is out of business.

How much TCDD was sprayed on the earth floor of the Shenandoah arena? Well, it happened that Mrs. Piatt had taken a sample of earth from the arena floor during the last week of August, 1971, before it had been replaced. She had poured the earth into a quart-sized. Miracle Whip jar and labeled it “Soil, Shenandoah Stables, Last Week in August, 1971.”

That jar was sent by her veterinarian to the University of Missouri Veterinary School for analysis. But the school staff had been unable to discover the toxic agent and so the jar remained on a shelf in the lab, where it was found after the TCDD discovery had been made in Atlanta. The jar was then shipped to Atlanta and opened and its contents were studied. It tested out at 31.8 to 33 parts per million, a dangerous amount.

But, according to Dr. Patrick Phillips, a public health veterinarian for the Missouri State Department of Health, who has been deeply involved in the case from its inception, the tank in Verona still holds 4,500 gallons of waste containing 300 parts per million. The TCDD in the tank is so lethal an amount that the state hasn’t been able to find anybody willing to take the responsibility for disposing of it. A low concrete wall and concrete floor was constructed around the tank, but that is its only protection.

* * *

“THAT TANK is a real hazard,” says Phillips, “but we can’t get it removed. The federal government hasn’t any authority in a case like this and at the state level there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do. We asked companies in Louisiana and Minnesota that specialize in disposing of hazardous wastes if they would incinerate it but the state legislatures won’t let the stuff pass the state lines. One company did offer to try the job but said it would cost a quarter of a million dollars and the state won’t pay for that.

“Then we sent a sample to Amsterdam, Holland, to the people who ope[r]ate the Vulcanus, the incinerator ship, but when they opened the package and saw the label I had marked with the 300 parts, they sent it right back saying they wouldn’t touch it.

“The company that’s operating the plant now says they don’t know what to do with it and besides it’s not their responsibility because it was in the tank when they took it over.

“So it’s just sitting out there, right on the edge of town. I’m not so frightened of it as I am in awe of it, though, just because of where it is. That’s tornado country out there. A few years ago, a town only 50 miles from Verona was wiped out in a tornado. I don’t know what would happen then.


TCDD: (2,3,7,8, Tetrachlorochibenzo-p-dioxin)
A toxic chlorinated hydrocarbon which occurs as an impurity in the herbicide 2,4,5-T or Agent Orange. It can be removed by extraction with coconut charcoal. Its half-life in soil is about 1 year.
Symptoms (caused by swallowing, breathing or skin contact with TCDD) include: Chloracne, liver damage, urinary system damage, cysts, neurological damage, gastritis, kidney damage, pulmonary emphysema, and death.

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