Three years later, Loudon County farmer still seeking answers about mass cattle death

Farmer seeks answers in 2010 deaths

Hugh G. Willett

Loudon farmer Jerry Hughes holds a cow bone Tuesday, July 16, 2013 on the property he used to lease for his cattle. Hughes says the drainage ditch beside him begins at the retention pond on Matlock Bend landfill property. He had 26 cows die in 2010, he believes they died from poisonous runoff from the landfill.  (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)
Loudon farmer Jerry Hughes holds a cow bone Tuesday, July 16, 2013 on the property he used to lease for his cattle. Hughes says the drainage ditch beside him begins at the retention pond on Matlock Bend landfill property. He had 26 cows die in 2010, he believes they died from poisonous runoff from the landfill. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

LOUDON — It’s been more than three years since Jerry Hughes reported the mysterious death of 26 head of cattle on his leased property adjacent to the Matlock Bend Landfill.

The Loudon County farmer is still trying to determine why the animals died. The bones of some of his animals can still be found on the property.

Hughes told the Loudon County Solid Waste Disposal Commission last week he thinks the cattle were poisoned. He and other residents around the landfill are concerned the animal deaths were caused by polluted run-off that they say also has tainted wells and turned sinks black.

Hughes also wants to know why the chairman of the commission that oversees the landfill visited the Loudon County Sheriff’s Office a week after the incident and requested that further reports about such events not be passed on to state or federal agencies.

Disposal commission chairman Steve Field, who heard Hughes’ concerns, says there’s no evidence the cows were poisoned by any runoff from the landfill. The waste disposal commission declined to take any action after the farmer appeared before them.

Matlock Bend, operating off Highway 72 under an interlocal agreement between the county, Lenoir City and Loudon, has received citizen complaints in the past about runoff. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has cautioned it about runoff, although it has issued no violations.

A deputy investigates

On March 24, 2010, Loudon County Sheriff’s Deputy Adam Yokley visited the farm and witnessed several cattle that were dead or dying along with other dead wild animals.

Yokely’s report listed 20 dead animals in the barn. The report stated that the cattle were drinking from a water source on the property. The deputy also wrote that when he went to the water source it had a strong odor, possibly of sewage. Photos and water samples were taken.

The incident is discussed in the minutes of the April 2010 waste disposal commission meeting. According to the minutes, the Sheriff’s Office wrote a letter to the National Response Center, the federal point of contact for reporting chemical and biological spills, stating that the cows had died from sewage coming from the landfill.

The minutes also reflect that Field, the disposal commission chairman, told commissioners he went to the Sheriff’s Office and received assurances that if there were any similar reports that they would be brought to the attention of Gordon Harless, who was at that time in charge of the county animal shelter.

Field acknowledges today that he went to the Sheriff’s Office to discuss the issue with Chief Deputy Tony Aikens because he thought notifying the NRC was an overreaction. Aikens could not be reached for comment.

Field said that to his knowledge no attempt was made to test the pond water.

“We had no reason to believe that it was unsafe,” he said.

According to Field, the landfill was inspected by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation the same day that the cattle incident was reported. No violations were issued that day, Field said. TDEC did not view the allegedly contaminated pond because it was not on land owned by the landfill.

According to TDEC spokeswoman Shannon Ashford, the agency has no record of the cattle deaths or reports of the contaminated pond.

The land where the pond is located has since become part of the landfill’s overall footprint, after a deal was worked out last year to trade the land with the owner for a similarly sized piece of property nearby.

The waste disposal commission is seeking TDEC permission to continue growing.

Loudon farmer Jerry Hughes, center, climbs across a barbed wire fence withe the help of Aileen Longmire, left, and Trevor Reese, right, at Reece's back property line to access a drainage ditch Tuesday, Jul. 16, 2013. According to Hughes the drainage ditch runs directly from a retention pond on the Matlock Bend landfill property. Hughes had 26 cattle die in 2010 and he believes they died from poison from that landfill. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

Tainted water

The boundary of the landfill, including the allegedly polluted pond, abuts property owned by Janice Reese. She and her family thought they were building their dream home on the side of a hill overlooking Watts Bar Lake about a mile from the landfill.

“They told us the landfill was going to be closed in a few years. Instead, they have expanded. And now it’s right next to our property,” she said.

Runoff from the landfill comes directly downhill through her property, Reese said.

They have a well, she said, but they have never been able to drink the water in the five years they have lived on the property. Several dogs have died without explanation. Sinks and toilets have turned black from the water, she said.

“We can’t even sell this land now,” she said.

Gordon Harless manages the county recycling centers. In 2010, he supervised the county animal shelter and was also in charge of county emergency management.

Harless said he visited the pond site the day after Deputy Yokley and saw several dead animals, but not as many as reported by Hughes. He said he saw one dead cow in the pond, which might have tainted the water. He said as far as he knows the water in the pond was never tested, but that the University of Tennessee Agriculture Department took samples from a dead calf.

“I’d like to read that UT report,” he said.

But the results of the necropsy were sealed and not available for review, Harless said.

He has a theory about why the cattle died.

“They were being fed sage grass, which has very low nutritional value,” he said.

Hughes said he has been raising cattle more than 40 years. He said the animals did not die from neglect or starvation. He said neighbors around Matlock Bend can verify that he was out every week during the winter feeding the animals, which were worth at least $1,000 each.

No tests

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency received a report about Hughes’ dead cows April 1, 2010. The report was made by a private citizen listed as Nichaulus Threatt. The farmer said he’s never heard of the name. Record searches failed to turn up a person of that name in Loudon County.

The TEMA report lists Santek Land Fill Solutions as the suspected responsible party. Santek, of Cleveland, Tenn., manages the landfill. According to the minutes of the April waste disposal commission meeting, Santek was never notified of the incident.

The TEMA report describes the nature of the incident as a sewage odor in a field. Listed as dead are seven cows and one opossum. The report references a University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension autopsy that found one cow to be infested with parasites. Harless was listed as the source of the information about parasites.

There is no mention of any tests conducted upon the water in the pond. Other state and federal agencies were notified and the incident was closed on April 5, 2010.

Hughes said he finally read the UT necropsy report this week after making a request to have the records unsealed. He said he doesn’t know who asked for the records to be sealed in the first place. He also said the report doesn’t list parasites as the cause of death, just that they were present.

“Some cows have parasites. That doesn’t make two dozen of them die in a week,” he said.

Hughes believes the most important evidence — the pond water itself — was ignored because the landfill operators did not want to take responsibility for the runoff.

“They never tested the water. They didn’t want to know if it was poison,” he said.

The UT report did not screen for toxins in the necropsy on the calf. Such tests would only be performed at the request of the submitting veterinarian.

Tissue samples were destroyed after 60 days. The report does list the animal as positive for parasites and worms and cites dehydration and emaciation as possible contributing factors. The report lists hay quality as poor and notes a lack of pasture.