Manure pit tragedy not unprecedented

As we learned today, four members of a Mennonite family and a coworker on a farm in Rockingham Country died as they tried to rescue each other from a manure pit yesterday. Officials have identified the victims as Scott Showalter, 34; his wife, Phyillis, 33; their children, Shayla, 11, and Christina, 9; and hired hand Amous Stoltzfus, 24.

Rockingham sheriff Don Farley, tells the Hook that going down in manure pits is common. He grew up on dairy farm and never heard of a death caused by that– more common in silos, he said. He said everything has to be lined up just so for a manure pit to have no oxygen, which was apparently the case when the Rockingham farmers entered their pit.

Likewise, Elaine Lidholm, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said that transferring manure from a small pit like the Showalter's to a large pit "happens all the time."

"Of course, I've heard of the dangers of manure pits, and know of individuals passing out in them, but never a whole family," said Lidholm. "I grew up on a dairy farm and have been in agriculture all my life and I never heard of this happening."

Officials on the scene have speculated that Scott Showalter had climbed down into the pit to remove a clog in the manure pump and was overcome by deadly methane gas emanating from the manure, which had displaced the oxygen out of the pit beneath a livestock building.

As his wife, Stoltzfus, and then the two children attempted rescues, each apparently succumbed to the fumes and lack of oxygen. Two other Showalter children, ages 3 and 7, were not involved in the incident, says Farley.

The tragedy comes as a shock to city dwellers and to many in the world. On last count, the story had appeared in almost 300 newspapers and online news sites around the world. How could something like this happen? Why do farmers have manure pits? And why did the accident claim all the family members?

As it turns out, the danger isn't unprecedented.

In 1990, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued a report warning farmers of the dangers of entering manure pits. At the time, many farm workers were mostly unaware of the dangers of these pits, where extremely oxygen-deficient and toxic atmospheres could be created.

Used primarily on livestock farms, these pit systems are used to allow for easy cleaning of livestock buildings. Instead of having to shovel manure, the building can simply be hosed down with waste falling into underground manure pits.

However, inside these pits, the raw manure undergoes "anaerobic digestive fermentation," a process that can create four potentially dangerous gases, including methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, and ammonia.

Together, contained in a confined space, these gases can create a dangerous, oxygen-deficient atmosphere that can cause death in a matter of minutes. In addition, a key physiological effect oxygen deprivation leading up to asphyxiation includes impaired or faulty judgment.

The alert documented nearly 20 manure pit deaths in the 1980s, noting that the incidents often included more than one victim. In fact, the study showed that nearly 40 percent of the victims were coworkers or relatives attempting a rescue.
At least one NIOSH-noted accident is eerily similar to the one in Rockingham yesterday, as five family members died of methane asphyxiation in 1989. Initially, a dairy farmer's younger son entered the pit to fix a shear pin on an agitator shaft, which is used to stir the manure, and as he was climbing out, he succumbed to the fumes and lack of oxygen. A grandson then entered the pit. A nephew, the older son, and finally the 65-year-old dairy farmer then entered one at a time to attempt a rescue, and all were overcome.
The NIOSH study found that the fatalities often occurred at pits that had been entered multiple times without incident. "Previous uneventful entries may lead farm workers to feel safe about entering these pits," said the report, noting that dangerous conditions can happen "intermittently."
As a result of the study, NIOSH issued recommendations on manure pit safety, which included having proper ventilation, wearing a harness with a lifeline attached to a mechanical winch, hoist, or pulley when entering the pit, and always having a person nearby to operate the equipment. NIOSH also recommended that an oxygen mask, like the ones used by rescue workers and firefighters, be on hand for anyone attempting a pit rescue.

While Lidholm doesn't believe the Rockingham tragedy will lead to new regulations, she does think it will lead to increased awareness.

"This has sent shockwaves through the farming communities in the Valley, and through the whole State," she says. "And I think they'll be informational and educational campaigns as a result."