PHILADELPHIA, PA – Environmental authorities found no immediate environmental threat to a rural area where farmers reported mysterious maladies that made them sick and killed their livestock, officials reported Wednesday.
After a 14-month study, investigators from the federal Environmental Protection Agency found many of the problems to be associated with the way farmers manage their farms.
Investigators found elevated levels of boron and fluoride in the water, soil and necropsied cows from the Montgomery County areas of Boyertown, Gilbertsville and Congo, but the levels were below toxic concentration, said Mike Towle, the on-scene coordinator for the EPA’s hazardous site cleanup division. “It’s not a pristine environment here anymore, but it is not a toxic environment either,” Towle said.
Beginning in late 1998, farmers began complaining of dairy cows that died mysteriously, or those with severe deformities, excessive tooth loss, low milk production, leg lesions and miscarriages. Others told strange stories of pigs and crops turning purplish and dying. And farmers complained about their own health problems, which the EPA declined to describe specifically.
“We’re seeing a lot of health problems, but there are common explanations that seem to apply here,” said Stephanie R. Ostrowski, a veterinary epidemiologist with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry.
Lameness and lesions were associated with the practice of confining the cows in unbedded tie-stalls for 24 hours. Records showed no decrease in milk production. And tooth loss was attributed to the normal shedding of “baby” teeth, she said.
Reports of deformed or dying cows, pig problems and human health complaints could not be addressed because no documentation of the problems were ever made.
In one area, 11 families were provided bottled water because their wells had boron levels above the EPA’s health guidelines, Towle said.
Farmers in the area said they don’t believe the investigation results are complete.
“We knew they were going to blame dairy herd management and we disagree.
Something is making our cows really sick,” said Gilbertsville farmer Sue Hallowell. “They never talked with our veterinarian or nutritionist about what goes on in our herd. They were only here for two hours walking around with a clipboard.
“We need a lawyer now and we’ll let experts battle this out,” she said.
The EPA conducted tests on site and purchased four cows from local farms to perform necropsies. More water tests will be conducted next week, with final results expected late next month, Towle said.
Farmers suspected that a nearby ore-processing plant in Boyertown, Cabot Performance Materials, may be causing the problems.
However, Towle reported that there was no substantial widespread pollution from the plant. Boron and fluoride occur naturally and in pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer. And although the area around the plant has double the amount of contaminants in the ground area, it was still within the regulated amounts, he said.
“The facility has gone beyond its fence line, but it did not impact a huge area,” Towle said. “We’ll be testing more to figure out why from a regulation point of view.”
The company will cooperate with the tests, said spokeswoman Janet Howard.
“It’s been a tough one for us. Several residents have been concerned about their property values and what may be hurting their children, but this has put some of those concerns to rest for the time being,” Howard said.
The U.S. Geological Survey announced last month it is expected to begin a 22-month study in central Pennsylvania where residents say something has been killing cows and causing what they consider high rates of cancer.