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Federal and State Agencies to Continue Investigation of Tannery Sludge Distribution to Northwest Missouri Farms

Release Date: 07/01/2009
Contact Information: EPA Region 7 - Chris Whitley, 913-551-7394,; Missouri Department of Natural Resources - Susanne Medley, 573-751-1010,; Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services - Kit Wagar, 573-751-6062,

Environmental News


(Kansas City, Kan., July 1, 2009) - Results from the initial phase of a federal and state investigation into the use of leather tannery sludge as agricultural fertilizer on northwest Missouri farms do not appear to indicate any health risks posed by the levels of hexavalent chromium found in a limited number of farm soil samples, but further investigation to include more soil testing at other farms will begin early this month, agency representatives announced today.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 7 and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), with assistance from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (MDHSS), opened a cooperative investigation into the tannery sludge issue in late April 2009. The government investigation was launched in response to public concerns about a St. Joseph, Mo., leather tannery's distribution of waste sludge for use as agricultural fertilizer on northwest Missouri farms, and whether the sludge material contained hexavalent chromium that might pose health risks to the public.

Hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium(VI), has been shown to cause some forms of cancer, including nose, sinus and lung cancers. EPA and MDHSS are not aware of any studies indicating that chromium(VI) is associated with primary brain or central nervous system tumors.

To date, the federal and state investigation has led to several actions, including:
  • From April 29 through May 4, 2009, EPA and MDNR staff conducted a multi-media inspection of National Beef Leathers facilities (formerly known as Prime Tanning) at 205 Florence Road, in St. Joseph. The inspection was done to determine the company's compliance with air, water and waste regulations. Inspectors found no violations of air or water regulations, but they did document several violations of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which applies to the treatment, handling and storage of hazardous wastes. None of the alleged RCRA violations would appear to have any impact on the levels of chromium(VI) in sludge generated by the company. National Beef Leathers has been officially notified of the violations. A determination of civil penalties against the company for those violations is currently pending.
  • On May 1, 2009, MDNR and EPA staff collected a total of eight soil samples from three farms in Andrew, Buchanan and DeKalb counties where sludge from Prime Tanning or National Beef Leathers is known to have been spread. Chromium(VI) was detected in five of the eight samples, at levels ranging from 20 to 49 parts per million. MDNR, EPA and MDHSS have set a screening level of 86 parts per million for chromium(VI), meaning that any detections above that level could warrant closer investigation.
  • MDNR has performed limited water testing, including samples from one private well and two surface water sources (two ponds on separate properties). Hexavalent chromium was not detected in any of these samples.
  • MDNR conducted an inspection of the St. Joseph sanitary landfill on May 21, 2009, to ensure the landfill is properly handling and managing the waste coming from National Beef Leathers. MDNR staff conducted both a physical inspection of the facility and a records review to determine compliance with applicable solid waste and water protection requirements. The final inspection report is still being finalized, but none of the results from the inspection or sampling gives MDNR cause for concern about impacts to public health. The landfill inspection report will provide the numerical results and a discussion of the findings.
  • MDNR has withdrawn the exemption that allowed Prime Tanning Company to land apply the fertilizer product labeled as "Organic Plus." This exemption was granted to Prime Tanning on April 25, 2005. National Beef Leathers, LLC, purchased Prime Tanning in March 2009. Due to test results revealing unanticipated levels of hexavalent chromium in sludge and in soils, National Beef Leathers must immediately cease all land application activities of sludge or fertilizer products.
  • EPA and MDNR staff have been working to develop a database of all farms known to have received sludge from Prime Tanning or National Beef Leathers, and where possible, to identify how often and when sludge was received at those farms. To date, the investigation has identified approximately 773 separate distributions of sludge to 116 farmers in Andrew, Buchanan, Clinton and DeKalb counties between 1983 and 2008. EPA and MDNR are working to determine similar information about the tannery's sludge distributions since 2008.
  • EPA and MDNR staffs are in the process of reviewing other leather tanneries in their respective jurisdictions (for EPA, the states of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska) to determine if those facilities are in compliance with environmental regulations.
  • Using information from the farm database, MDNR and EPA are developing a plan to collect soil samples from 15 additional parcels of farm land for the next round of testing, provided that the owners of those properties will agree to allow access to their land. MDNR and EPA staff will begin this second phase of field sampling this month, with results to be made public once they are thoroughly reviewed. Lab analysis of those samples is expected to help the agencies guide their next steps in the investigation.

Meanwhile, EPA, MDNR and MDHSS will host a public availability session next week in St. Joseph to share information from the investigation, and to address public questions and concerns. The event will be held from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, July 7, at the Fulkerson Center, located in Leah Spratt Hall at 4525 Downs Drive on the campus of Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph. For a printable map to the meeting location, go to:
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For more information about the tannery sludge investigation, go to: