UPDATED AT 5:00PM EDT - The beleaguered Union Go Dairy will dispatch a professional team to the town of Winchester on Thursday to carefully excise the explosive and deadly methane gas that has been trapped under the synthetic lining of a mega-dairy near the tiny hamlet.
Over the weekend, I wrote about the infamous Crap Bubbles of Eastern Indiana, which rise more than 20 feet in the air above the sprawling cornfields. The giant bubbles, at the Union Go mega-dairy, are filled with bovine intestinal gas, trapped within the expandable synthetic liner that was supposed to seal the bottom of a 21-million-gallon "waste lagoon."
For a few years now, neighbors have feared that the whole disgusting thing would blow, causing harm, damaging buildings and livestock, and coating many of the surrounding acres with a greasy, stinking film of liquified cow poop, urine and spilled milk.
Union Go's owner, Tony Goltstein, told the Wall Street Journal last week that he and his son were thinking of paddling out to the bubbles to slash them with a knife. But on Wednesday, an engineering company announced it would do the dirty - and risky - deed for him.
Barry Sneed, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management told me on Wednesday that the plans were in place, and that IDEM will have observers on site during the operation. He said that consultants for the dairy, North Point Engineering, will go out to the bubbles and carefully puncture them, and then put a valve in place to control the release.
Some of the initial gas will be captured and sent to a mobile testing lab on site to determine its exact contents. Experts believe the bubbles are made of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane - a deadly and explosive gas. The ratio of air-to-gasses will determine how quickly the bubbles can be deflated, Sneed said. If the gas levels are high, it could take several days to complete the job, to avoid releasing dangerous levels into the surrounding air.
Despite the giggles that this story evokes (and the ick factor associated with exploding bubbles of poo), this is actually no laughing matter to neighbors who live nearby.
Methane is deadly, and even brief exposures to it can kill people. I wrote about the gas's lethal qualities in Animal Factory, describing a horrible tragedy at a dairy in Virginia:
Each year, grisly reports surface in the news about people working around manure pits who are instantly overcome by methane fumes. Victims often topple into the thick brown muck where, if they haven't stopped breathing already, they drown.
Now, it had happened again, this time on a muggy July, 2007 evening in Virginia's lovely Shenandoah Valley, on a Mennonite dairy farm in the shady hamlet of Briery Branch, in Rockingham County. There, the Showalter family milked 103 cows and kept active in the conservative Mennonite community that thrives in that part of the Valley. Though they shunned many modern amenities, members did avail themselves of vehicles, telephones and modern day farm-safety procedures.
On the evening of July 2, Scott Showalter, a 34-year-old father of four, was conducting a weekly routine: pumping liquefied manure from a small pit into a larger holding pond. As he worked, a drainpipe in the pit became clogged. It had happened before, and Showalter knew what to do. He shimmied down through a 4-foot opening into the concrete enclosure, essentially an underground tank, and attempted to clear the clogged pipe himself. But a cloud of odorless methane gas had engulfed the pit. Showalter passed out within seconds and fell face-first into 18 inches of mire.
The dairy's farmhand, 24-year-old Amous Stoltzfus, witnessed the accident. Thinking that Showalter must be having a heart attack, Stoltzfus waded in to rescue his boss. He, too, was felled by the fumes and dropped into the sludge. Another worker ran yelling towards the house, to alert Showalter's wife, Phyllis. She quickly scrambled down to the scene, along with her four daughters, ages 11, 9, 6 and 2.
At the sight of her motionless husband, Phyllis screamed and climbed into the pit. She suddenly went limp. Her frantic daughter Shayla, 11, went in after her, followed by Christina, 9. Workers had to restrain the other two daughters, screaming and sobbing, from following suit. Five bodies now lay suspended in the muck.
Several accounts of similar deaths had surfaced on mega-dairies in Texas and California. Most recently, a young farmhand from Mexico had passed out in an electric cart while driving by a lagoon in the Central Valley. The vehicle went right into the waste, killing him instantly.
Sneed said that the mega-dairy, which has filed for bankruptcy protection and is in foreclosure, will cover the cost of the cleanup, which will be good news to Hoosier taxpayers.
Of course, if the whole thing blows - which I sincerely hope does not happen - the cost of the cleanup will explode right along with the lagoon liner.
David Kirby is author of Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment. (St. Martins Press) - More information is at www.animalfactorybook.com
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