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I-Team visits rarely seen mass grave from 1973 chemical disaster

Danger Unearthed: 40 years ago, thousands of farm animals were shot and buried because they had eaten poisoned feed. Today, we look at the lasting effects of the poisoning and its solutions.

Alpha Clark is one of the few remaining alive who know the exact location where tens of thousands of contaminated cattle, pigs, chickens and other animals were buried after the 1973 animal feed poisoning that rocked the state of Michigan back in 1973.

As part of Newschannel 3’s two-part story looking at the disaster and its lasting effects. Clark, 85, took the I-Team to the location of the mass grave in Kalkaska County, marked only by a fence and signs that read “Area closed to all motorized vehicles.”

It’s an eerily quiet area, accessible only by dirt roads. Much of the land just outside the mass-animal grave is surrounded by artificial brims that Clark said were installed to ensure any contaminants from the mass-grave stayed put.

Clark, a veterinarian in McBain, became one of the first individuals to realize that something was very wrong with hundreds of cattle throughout Michigan in the early 70s.

“At first they thought I was screwy,” he said, referring to state officials with whom he said he shared his concerns about the condition of the cattle.

Many cows in Michigan developed sores and disfigured hooves, and milk production dropped significantly, ultimately causing financial ruin for some farmers, and health concerns for those who purchased meat, milk and other products in Michigan.

After months of debating with state officials, Clark took samples from the cattle to other states, where it was later determined that they had been contaminated with polybrominated biphynyl (PBB), a chemical commonly used as a flame retardant in many household products.

Clark was initially sued by the state of Michigan for trafficking the cattle out of the state to get tests done, but the lawsuit was dropped after it became clear that Clark’s concerns about the feed were valid.

According to Clark, the PBB chemical ended up in the animal feed by mistake because the manufacturer, Michigan Chemical Co. placed it in sacks that were very similar to the magnesium oxide cattle supplement also made by the manufacturer.

Making matters more confusing, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, both products shared a similar name, FireMaster and NutriMaster. Clark said the labels on both products were incredibly small.

Both products, as a result, were shipped to Michigan Farm Bureau Services, and then sold to farmers throughout the state, ultimately poisoning cows, chickens, pigs and other animals.

The plant where both products came from, in St. Louis, Michigan, has since been closed, destroyed, and is still undergoing remediation.

Clark said much of Michigan, even the Upper Peninsula was affected back in the 1970s, but he adds parts of West Michigan, including Battle Creek received more of a heavy concentration of the PBB.

“They fed the pure stuff (PBBs) to cows, and nobody knew it,” he said.

Humans also were affected, as the PBB made its way into milk and meat products.

To this day, 60 percent of Michiganders still test positive for having higher-than-usual PBB levels, according to the Emory Rollins School of Public Health.

The health effects of PBB in humans are still being determined by researchers, but health officials said there does appear to be evidence linking PBB exposure to an increased risk of cancer and lymphoma, while also cautioning that more research needs to be done before firm conclusions are reached.

“The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined that PBBs may reasonably be anticipated to be carcinogens,” reads an article by the Michigan health department. “We know that they (PBBs) can cause liver cancer in rats and mice”, the article continues.

“Some PBB-exposed Michigan residents complained of nausea, abdominal pain, and loss of appetite, joint pain, fatigue and weakness.”

As for Clark, although history has painted him as something of a hero for discovering the contamination of so many animals, after years of helping with books and research on the topic, he rarely likes to discuss the PBB disaster.

“I’m just glad I did it,” he said, reflecting on his role. “The whole thing was just awful though. ... It wasn’t fun, you can tell by the look on my face it was just horrible.”

Shortly after discovering the contamination, Clark regularly watched farmers being forced to shoot their cattle.

He would make regular trips to what became the mass-grave site in Kalkaska County to oversee their burial, adding that state officials wanted to pick an area they thought would be safe enough to bury so many contaminated animals.

Today, however, it’s not clear if all of the animals were properly destroyed, nor is it clear what happened to all of the contaminated feed.

A Battle Creek man, Ronnie Carter, said he distinctly remembers being asked to bury some of the contaminated feed in a field just outside Battle Creek.

Carter claims to also be suffering health effects from it, and wants action to be taken to prevent others from being affected.

“I don’t want it to cause cancer or get into the water,” Carter said.

He also said the DEQ has told him they don’t want to mess with it.

When asked about Carter’s claims, Clark, indicated that if true, it could be worrisome.

Tuesday at 11 p.m., the Newschannel 3 I-Team will take a closer look at the new claims regarding contaminated feed possibly being buried in West Michigan.

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