DANVILLE, Pa. — Monday was a harrowing day for dairy farmer Dennis Beachel of Danville, Montour County.
Just as he was starting to stir his 124-foot-wide, 12-foot-deep, 1.2-million-gallon concrete manure pit late Monday morning, he saw something no parent would ever want to see.
“We had just started to stir the pit and within two to three minutes, I turned around and both of the boys laid beside their bicycles,” Beachel said.
The boys, 4-year-old Denyn and 2-year-old Denallen, who had just celebrated his birthday the week before, were found face up and unresponsive. The younger boy’s face had turned blue, and his eyes had rolled back into his head.
The boys were playing next to the large manure pit when Beachel and his father starting prepping it to be emptied.
Aware of past accidents involving manure gas on dairy farms, Beachel feared the worst.
“They looked like they were dead. I feared they were when I first picked them up,” he said.
But unlike other incidents, the kids weren’t found in the pit itself; they were found aside the pit.
It’s something Beachel never thought would happen, especially considering the pit was built this past winter to replace an old earthen pit.
“Everybody is baffled how it could’ve happened,” he said.
In fact, the incident has raised the eyebrows of several people with the state office of the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), which helped design the pit.
Hosea Latsaw, state conservation engineer, said that although the cause of the accident hasn’t been determined, he is concerned that Beachel’s use of gypsum for bedding might have contributed to the accident.
“It’s very difficult to pinpoint the exact cause. We think this has the potential for the gypsum to be the problem here,” he said.
Gypsum, a sulfate-based material, is one of the main ingredients in drywall. But it can also be used as an alternative bedding amendment in barns.
Latshaw said the material, when mixed with water in an anerobic setting, can produce an unusually high amount of hydrogen sulfide, a deadly gas.
Still, he said the incident is highly unusual, given the fact that other farms also use gypsum and no other similar incidents have ever been documented.
“What we want to get out right now is there might be something here that hasn’t been studied enough,” Latsaw said. “This is something different at the Beachel farm that needs to get out.”
Beachel had received a government grant to build the structure
Concrete pits, which range in size depending on the size of a dairy herd, have become increasingly popular on farms as government agencies see them as safer and better for the environment compared with old earthen pits.
The pit, which takes manure from the adjacent 250-head dairy farm, was built adjacent to the barn, which allows Beachel to simply scrape manure into it.
Most of the pit is above ground with fencing. But a large area of it was built at ground level, with a lane running next to it.
Beachel said his younger son, who was playing with a tricycle, was a mere two feet from the side of the pit where it was ground level when the side-mounted manure pump was turned on. His older boy was about 15 feet from the pit on a bicycle.
Winds, Beachel said, were calm at the time of the accident.
“There is a driveway right there and the kids are always there,” he said.
Beachel called 911 and moved the boys away from the pit. An ambulance was on scene within 15 minutes.
Both boys were taken to a nearby hospital, where Denyn was released at 3 p.m. Monday afternoon.
Denallen, the 2-year-old, was kept overnight for observation and was released Tuesday morning. Beachel said doctors told him the boy was likely minutes from not being able to breath when emergency responders arrived at the farm.
Beachel said an NRCS engineer, who was working at his brother’s farm three miles away, showed up at the farm within a few minutes of the accident occurring. He was told the accident may have resulted from the release of hydrochloric sulfide as the crust was being broken and that the lack of wind may have kept a plume of gas in the air close enough for his sons to breath in.
Beachel said he didn’t feel any effects himself when he picked up the boys and moved them to the side.
Dennis Murphy, Extension safety specialist at Penn State, said overexposure to gases, even in an open air manure storage, is possible, especially when a pit is being emptied.
“I’ve heard farmers say they get light headed and have to get away,” Murphy said.
Hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia are among the gases that can be released when the crust from a manure storage pit is broken.
He said farmers can wear a single- or multigas detector, which can either be rented or purchased, on their shirt collar which will sound an alarm if a high level of gas is in the air.
Hot, humid days with no wind can be especially dangerous, he said, because it can allow gas to stay in a single place for a longer period of time.
“They have to be aware of the gases that get generated when they are emptying,” he said.
Still, Murphy said he’s never heard of a situation like this, since the boys weren’t actually in the pit.
While he hasn’t gone to the farm, Murphy said he’s seen pictures of the pit and surrounding area, and thinks the boys were close enough to breathe in gas that it could have contributed to the accident.
Manure pit accidents have been on the rise, Murphy said. But he thinks people, now more aware of the dangers of manure pits, are reporting more incidents to Extension or their local authorities.
“It used to be every three or four years. Now we’re hearing something every year,” he said.
Latshaw said the design of the pit isn’t unusual and that many pits are built within just a few feet of a barn to allow a farmer easy access to scrape in manure.
Beachel said he wished he would have known more about the dangers of gases released from manure pits prior to allowing his boys to play so close to it.
It’s something he said he’ll be more aware of in the future.
“It’s a scary thing to see and something we never expected,” he said. “More farmers need to be made aware of how serious this really is.”