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Lawsuit Blaming Tannery for Missouri Brain Cancer

The investigation into the cause of brain tumors near Cameron, Mo., lead to the filing of a lawsuit which accused a tannery of being at fault.

Sludge from Prime Tanning Corp., in St. Joseph contains high levels of hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen, the lawsuit filed in Clinton County alleged.

For years, farmers in at least four counties in northwest Missouri have gotten the sludge for free to use as an agriculture fertilizer for their crops, according to the lawsuit.

he lawsuit was filed in Cameron in the Clinton County Circuit Court by the Kansas City law firm of Wagstaff & Cartmell with the assistance of Thomas V. Girardi of Los Angeles.

For a year now, the Environmental Protection Agency, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Missouri Department of Health and a state epidemiologist have been investigating what residents believe are a high number of brain tumors in the area — more than 70 since 1996.

A previous lawsuit had been filed by another law firm against Rockwool Industries, which operated a factory about three miles west of Cameron until 1991.

The new lawsuit is filed against Prime Tanning and National Beef Leathers Co. A Kansas City-based firm, National Beef Packing Co., acquired Prime Tanning last month and renamed it National Beef Leathers.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of William Kemper of Cameron and Janet Lasher of Gallatin.

Kemper’s wife Karen died last May from complications from a brain tumor. She and her husband have two children. Karen Kemper was exposed to air pollution from hexavalent chromium when it was being applied on farms near her home, the lawsuit said.

Lasher was diagnosed with lung cancer that spread to her brain. She was exposed to the chemical by air pollution from the sludge that was applied on farms near where she worked, according to the lawsuit.

From 1983 through early 2009, the lawsuit alleges, the tannery used the chromium to remove hair from the hides during the tanning process. The waste product from that process was collected in “sludge.” The tannery hauled thousands of tons of sludge to farms in Andrew, Buchanan, DeKalb and Clinton counties to be used as fertilizer.

The tannery told the state the sludge did not contain the hexavalent chromium, according to the lawsuit.

DNR records show sludge from the tannery was considered agriculture fertilizer for a number of years, said Karl Fett, a DNR regional director.

The tannery had numerous citations for odor that was caused while applying the sludge, Fett said.

The lawsuit alleges the tannery and Rick Ream, who oversaw the land applications for Prime, were negligent for:

■ Failing to warn farmers and the public that high levels of hexavalent were contained in sludge being applied to the fields.

■ Misrepresenting to DNR that the sludge applied to the fields was free of hexavalent chromium.

■ Failing to report test results to the state indicating high levels of hexavlaent chromium in the sludge.

■ Failing to adequately test the sludge for hexavalent chromium.

Hexavalent chromium became well-known when Girardi and Brockovich filed a lawsuit in the 1990s against Pacific Gas & Energy for exposing a California town to the chemical. The case was settled in 1996 for $333 million, the largest settlement ever paid in a direct action lawsuit in United States history.

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