For dairy famers Kenneth and James Duckett, the pieces suddenly fell together last week. Previously they had dismissed the mysterious deaths of livestock and precipitous drops in milk production as just a series of curious occurrences.Then the evidence gushed forth, and for them, it spelled potential disaster.
The first hint of serious trouble had come on Feb. 3, the day Virginia water authorities learned that a wood preserving operation three miles from the Duckett farm had allowed more than 200,000 gallons of a highly toxic chromium-arsenic solution to enter a stream several days earlier. On its way to the Rappahanock River, the chemicals swept through dairy pastures, leaving behind dead cattle, belly-up bass and poultry killed by the scores.
The spill, from a chemical holding pond at Culpeper Wood Preservers, has farmers fuming over what they see as the pervasive, lenient attitude that Virginia regulatory agencies traditionally have taken toward businesses that foul the state's waters. And what has happened thus far along the banks of a meandering stream called Jonas Run may be just the beginning of the farmers' troubles.
"I don't have a whole lot of respect for government agencies anymore," said a bewildered Kenneth Duckett. "It's been a big joke, a sequence of lies."
The farmers, who stand to lose dairy herds valued in the millions, are furious that water officials learned of the spill -- labeled by plant owners as an accident that turned the stream green and foamy -- only through an anonymous phone call. Last week authorities assured local residents and farmers that wells on the farms and milk produced there are free of the chemicals.
What they did not tell the farmers is that state water specialists seven months earlier had found the plant polluting the same stream with levels of chromium and arsenic nearly 20 times those considered safe under their enforcement standards. Although state testing of milk samples showed no signs of the chemicals, test performed privately on behalf of the Ducketts did.
No tests were conducted on milk until at least five days after the latest spill was said to have occurred, an omission that has left dairy authorities without any assurance that hundreds of gallons of contaminated milk did not pass undetected to consumers in Washington.
"I can't tell you what was in there [the milk] before that [Feb. 5] because we weren't testing for it then" said Archie Holliday, chief of Virginia's Bureau of Dairy Services.
"How are you going to know?" said James Click, general manager of the Maryland-Virgina Milk Producers Association, the largest milk supplier to the Washington metropolitan area."We don't know."
What the Ducketts know is that three days after state authorities learned of the spill, they were ordered by the producers association to dump their milk -- more than 120 gallons a day -- because tests showed it contained traces of arsenic and chromium.
The ban on milk sales has been lifted, even though state tests show copper levels in the milk 50 times those allowed in livestock drinking water. In its place, the Ducketss and several other farmers, have been directed to quarantine all their livestock. The order prohibits them from either selling their prize Holsteins, each valued at upwards of $15,000, or bringing new ones on their farms.
With dozens of young calves already dead of mysterious causes, and showing dangerous levels of chromium and arsenic in carcasses, farmers see their herds threatened with decimation. "It looks like we're going to lose everything," Kenneth Duckett said.
Besides the threat of contamination, the Ducketts and other farmers say they face a bureaucratic mess that has left them hopelessly uninformed. Nearly a dozen different local, state and federal agencies claim some jurisdiction over the problem, yet no one seems to know who is in charge or what is to be done.
"I'm glad I was out of town," said Robert Forman, a State Health Department official based here. "Because there wasn't anything I could do about it. And if you can't do anything, you might as well disappear."
Forman, whose office is barely a mile from the origin of the chemicals, says he was unaware of the chemical holding pond until five days ago. That may not matter. In a complicated bureaucratic tango, he has been preempted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration from enforcing anything until the EPA deems his state agency qualified to act.
Meanwhile the State Water Control Board is charged with assuring the safety of area rivers and streams. Officials at the board's Alexandria office, however, say they were not aware of the holding pond's existence until it was discovered during a routine stream survey last July.
When that survey showed a tiny tributary near Culpeper Wood Preservers polluted with chromium and arsenic, the board did what it routinely does: attempt to negotiate a solution of the problem without going to court. It ordered the plant to apply for a permit regulating the chemicals' storage and preventing future dumping. The company agreed, but its permit application was not scheduled for review until March.
"This was routine until last week," said Ernie Watkins, the board's surveillance director in Alexandria who downplays the significance of the accident. "We don't really believe this is going to be a long-term problem."
Unbeknowst to the water board, said Watkins, Culpeper Wood Preservers was enlarging the holding pond at the time of the accident. The expansion was a clear violation, he said, of an agreement allowing them to seek the permit without facing sanctions for previous spills.
The water board assumed that the county had approved of the pond, he said.
Culpeper County officials say the pond -- unfenced and within 100 yards of residential homes -- never would have been allowed in that form if they had known about it. Zoning administrator Keith McCrea said the pond was not shown on the company's site plan, and McCrae, like Robert Forman, said he did not know it was there until after the spill.
The EPA, to which the company petitioned in August for a hazardous waste storage permit under a new regulations, had never visited the plant. The EPA, a spokesman said, has received hundreds of applications nationwide to store toxic wastes. Until all can be reviewed, the companies are permitted to operate as usual under what is known as "interim status."
"We don't tell them they have 'interim status,' the spokesman said. "The companies just read the regulations and declare, 'We have interim status.'
"You're confused?" said Forman. "You're not alone. There are a lot of people who are confused."
Because of the spill, both the EPA and the water board are considering legal action against Culpeper Wood Preservers, as are local farm owners. The plant's owner, Joseph Daniels, who also owns Jefferson Home Builders in Culpeper, declined comment.
Culpeper's pollution woes are compounded by the presence of a separate chemical dump located nearby. Until lat 1979, when state health authorities prohibited further chemical dumping, it was the only -- if highly illegal -- hazardous waste disposal site in the state.
State officials say they still don't know all the chemicals -- or in what quantities -- that were dumped on that land. Tests on the soil, which drains directly into the same streams affected by the recent spill, found arsenic and chromium.
Farmers suspect the dump also affected their livestock. For several months, dozens of calves have been dying with symptoms state dairy authorities, who last week were just beginning to learn of them, consider "unusual." All appeared to have starved to death despite frantic efforts to save them, a condition the farmers fear was induced by foreign chemicals.
"I guess we're going to have to dig another well," said Lucy Bunch, a dairy farmer several miles downstream. "I don't think it's ever going to be safe down here."