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Bill Strain claims that herbicides from the Limestone County Farmers Cooperative drained into the irrigation pond used to water the plants at his nursery.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Bill Strain claims that herbicides from the Limestone County Farmers Cooperative drained into the irrigation pond used to water the plants at his nursery.

Killer water in Limestone County?
Nursery owner alleges co-op contaminating

Part one in a series

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com · 340-2445

ATHENS — “I’ve been their sewer for 20-something years.”

That’s how nursery owner Bill Strain described alleged contamination by his business neighbor, the Limestone County Farmers Cooperative.

He believes the co-op’s handling of chemicals has been causing contamination since it began operation.

Both businesses are on U.S. 31 south of U.S. 72 and are one-half mile apart.

Strain, once a customer of the co-op, said it took him about five years and $2 million in plant losses before he put the blame on the co-op. He has filed a lawsuit that states the co-op does not follow industry standards for cleaning its spray tanks and other equipment.

The lawsuit also states the co-op is causing run-off contamination by not having a self-contained area for mixing and loading operations.

Testing by the state and a private lab indicates there are pesticides and herbicides in the groundwater and storm water adjacent to the co-op, in a tributary that runs to Swan Creek and in Strain’s irrigation pond off U.S. 31.

Strain has abandoned his pond and is pumping water from Swan Creek. The contamination was found in a tributary to the creek, but it is the only source he has to irrigate his plants other than the pond.

Strain has photographs of red-tinted water that he said flows from the co-op’s property into a drainage ditch running under U.S. 31 and eventually to his pond. He has video he says shows footage of co-op workers cleaning pesticides and herbicides from tanks, and the residue running into a culvert and into the drainage ditch.

The co-op sprays crops for farmers to control weeds and pests.

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s pesticide management booklet warns against disposal practices leading to contamination. It states regularly cleaning spray equipment, mixing tanks and pesticide containers on the same site can result in a concentration of pesticides in the soil.

Run-off contamination?

Bill Strain says this photo shows  red-tinted water flowing from co-op property into a drainage ditch leading to Strain and Sons Nursery’s irrigation pond.
Courtesy photo
Bill Strain says this photo shows red-tinted water flowing from co-op property into a drainage ditch leading to Strain and Sons Nursery’s irrigation pond.
Even though the co-op has moved its rinsing and washing operations to a new wash house, there is run-off contamination because of its mixing and loading practices, according to Strain’s attorneys.

“That’s why chemicals are showing up in the storm water,” Strain said. “The ground is so contaminated up there.”

The booklet said the industry standard is to carry a tank of clean water to the field so workers can do an initial rinse of the spray tank and equipment there. Workers should pressure wash or triple rinse the equipment.

The alternative is to wash the equipment on a concrete or plastic temporary pad and collect the rinse water and recycle it.

Limestone co-op manager John Curtis declined to comment, saying it was a “private matter.” He said he would notify the cooperative’s attorneys to see if they would address The Daily’s questions.

The co-op’s law firm, Scott, Sullivan, Streetman & Fox, P.C., faxed The Daily a statement that said, “It is our policy that parties and their counsel should refrain from commenting in detail on pending litigation in order to ensure a fair trial for all concerned. The only comment we would offer ... is that our client looks forward to having its day in court where it can offer evidence and prove the merits of its defenses to these unfounded allegations.”

What led Strain to point his green thumb at the co-op with these allegations is a story of frustration. It took five years for consultants to tell him to test the water.

Strain’s grandfather started Strain and Sons Nursery in 1938. In the 1940s, he built the 2-acre pond for irrigation.

In the spring of 2001, Strain noticed that his dwarf nadinas wouldn’t grow and their leaves curled. The mysterious malady then occurred in his Annabelle and oak leaf hydrangeas.

Consultants from universities such as Tennessee, Georgia, Auburn and North Carolina State tested the soil’s nutrients.

“They thought that maybe the pH level was wrong, or we had an insect problem,” Strain said. “Everything turned out OK.”

Strain called Doug Chapman, a regional extension agent with the Limestone County Extension office, and called an expert with Harold’s Fertilizer Co. He tried suggestions such as changing the ingredients in his compost.

Nothing worked.

2006 chemical spill

Then on April 6, 2006, a chemical spill brought Athens police to Strain’s door. Officer Charlie Clem told Strain there was a spill from the co-op, and it was flowing into the irrigation pond.

Ginger Lane hasn’t forgotten that day because she misses her frogs.

The spill killed them, and no other amphibians have claimed the ditch her frogs used to inhabit, she said. The ditch runs in front of Limestone Memorial Gardens, where she is administrator. The water then drains into Strain’s irrigation pond.

When Lane became a widow, she moved her camper to her work site because it was painful to stay in the home she had shared with her husband. Her grandson periodically stayed with her.

“We would go down to the ditch and watch the frogs jump and play,” Lane said. “My grandson liked to count them.”

The day of the chemical spill, Lane said, she went to get her mail around noon and noticed a bright yellow cast to the water in the ditch. That evening, she put mail in her box for pickup and noticed the ditch water’s color was darker and there was an odor.

“It made my eyes water and my throat burn,” she said. “I called the police, and at first, they told me it was probably pollen. They finally sent a couple of officers out here, but they didn’t think there was much to it.”

Lane retreated to her camper and closed the vent because of the smell.

“That night, I saw all these lights,” she said. “There were police cars and firetrucks everywhere.”

According to police and fire reports, a container failure at the co-op released 12 gallons of Prowl 3.3 EC, a herbicide. A contact with BASF, the company that makes Prowl, told hazmat that “plants and fish would perish,” but the chemical should absorb well into the soil.

Responders built a dike with sand to contain the release, and the co-op pumped 9,000 gallons of water from Swan Creek.

The smell of dead fish

“About two weeks later, I was cutting grass, and there was a nasty smell,” Lane said. “It was tons of dead fish floating in Bill’s pond.”

By May, the leaf curling and stunted growth problem spread throughout Strain’s container area. Even thick leaf plants like holly and magnolia had leaf curling, yellowish and brown spots and skimpy foliage.

Chapman then realized that the plants Strain watered from a smaller, secondary pond were not impacted. Chapman said he suggested Strain have his main irrigation pond tested.

Those tests found herbicides and pesticides in the water, the types that nurseries do not use, Strain said.

Strain said he contacted Curtis at the co-op and took him around his nursery.

“He told me to get the damages and turn them into their insurance company,” Strain said.

“But Ginger and I kept seeing yellow-, green- or pink-tinted water in the ditch, and I knew they were still cleaning their equipment improperly.”

Strain contacted the law firm Balch and Bingham, which does environmental litigation, and filed a lawsuit against the co-op and its parent organization, the Alabama Farmers Cooperative.

One of Strain’s attorneys, Bruce Barze, said the April 2006 spill is “just one example of the conduct the co-op has been engaging in for years.”

“The chemical in the April spill is not as harmful to the nursery plants as the chemicals detected in the ditch below the co-op on other occasions,” he said.

“The point is, the co-op has been doing this for years and finally got caught in 2006 because a lady just happened to go to the mailbox at the right time.”

Preliminary injunction

On Dec. 7, 2006, U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith approved a preliminary injunction order that said the co-op must stop discharging chemicals from its property into the waterway.

The case is expected to be tried in 2008.

“When my grandson stayed with me down here, he had ear infections and a runny nose,” Lane said. “He used to play in that ditch. He had to get tested for allergies.”

Lane said there isn’t much wildlife around the cemetery anymore.

“I don’t see rabbits or squirrels like I used to,” she said, “and there aren’t any frogs to watch.”

On Monday: An overview of the lawsuit, and a look at the state’s role.

What’s in the water?

The following chemicals were found in various amounts in the groundwater, storm water, pond sediment, runoff in a ditch and soil samples from the area around the Limestone County Farmers Cooperative, RJW Manufacturing and Strain and Sons Nursery. The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries and Great Southern Engineering Inc. in Trinity conducted the tests. The health effects listed are based on exposure above accepted levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

2,4-D: Colorless and odorless. It controls broadleaf weeds in agriculture. Can cause nervous system damage when people are exposed at high levels for short periods. Lifelong exposure can cause nervous system damage and damage to the liver and kidneys.

Arsenal: Its chemical name is Imazapyr. It controls weeds, vines and brambles. There is no evidence that it causes cancer in humans.

Atrazine: The most heavily used herbicide in the U.S., with an estimated 76.4 million pounds used yearly. There is no evidence it causes cancer in humans, but there have been hormonal changes in laboratory animals with short-term exposure.

Dicamba: White or brown in color. Used on weeds once they appear. Dogs exposed to it for one year showed no adverse health effects. Rabbits experienced skin irritations at high doses. Rats had impaired walking at high doses. It can cause appetite loss, weight loss, vomiting, depression, weakness, skin irritation and burning eyes in humans.

Glyphosate: Odorless white crystals used to kill grasses and woody plants. Short-term exposure can cause congestion of the lungs and an increased breathing rate. Long-term exposure can cause kidney damage and reproductive effects.

Metolachlor: Used for general weed control. Is considered a possible human carcinogen, and has caused liver tumors in female rats.

Nitrate+Nitrite-N: Used as a fertilizer. Major health risk is to infants under 6 months old because it reacts with hemoglobin, the oxygen carrier of the blood, and prevents transport of oxygen.

Norflurazon: Used to control annual grasses and broadleaf weeds. In animals, has caused increased weight to organs such as the liver and spleen.

Pendimethalin: Has yellowish-orange color. It is used to prevent weeds. It has a low acute toxicity, but is more toxic if exposure comes through contaminated food or water. The co-op’s hazmat spill in April 2006 was Prowl, a form of this herbicide.

Picloram: Has a chlorine-like odor. It controls weeds like bitterweed, larkspur and prickly pear. Can cause damage to the nervous system, weakness, diarrhea and weight loss.

Prometon: Used to control annual and perennial weeds and grasses. There is no information on effect in humans. Caused weight loss in rats and beagles.

Trifluralin: Has a yellowish-orange color. It is used as a herbicide on grass for cotton and soybean crops. The EPA has little information on the short- and long-term effects of exposure to humans, but has determined it could cause cancer. Dogs exposed to it lost body weight but had an increase in liver weight. Mice had abnormalities in the skeleton.

Compiled by holly hollman from EPA and National Pesticide Information Center fact sheets

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