Iowa father, son die from manure pit fumes

By: Grant Rodgers and Donnelle Eller, The Des Moines Register

DES MOINES, Iowa — A father and his son who were so close that they were “like glue” were killed Saturday by noxious fumes from an Iowa hog manure pit — the second father and son in the Midwest to die of poisonous manure pit gases this month.

Gene Opheim, 58, and his son, Austin Opheim, 32, both of Cylinder, Iowa, were rescued from the pit after the Palo Alto County Sheriff’s Office received a report of two men submerged at 1:50 p.m. Saturday. Both were pronounced dead at a hospital in Emmetsburg.

The father and son were both lifelong farmers, and often spent days doing chores, said Barb Wempen, a sister to Gene Opheim who lives in Algona.

“(Gene) loved farming, that was his life,” she said.

An obituary for Gene Opheim said he made a daily practice of carrying a pocket knife, pliers and a tape measure to make quick fixes around the farm. He enjoyed riding a Goldwing motorcycle.

The two were repairing a pump at a hog confinement when a piece of equipment they were using fell into the manure pit, Wempen said.

Austin Opheim went into the pit first to retrieve the equipment, and his father followed him after realizing his son had been overcome by gases, Wempen said. Palo Alto County Sheriff Lynn Shultes was not available to speak about the deaths Tuesday.

“(Gene) was carrying Austin on his back and bringing him up and he got almost to the top and he got overcome, and down they went,” she said.

DEADLY IN SECONDS

It takes just a few seconds for routine maintenance work in a pig barn to turn deadly, said Daniel Andersen, a water quality and manure management professor at Iowa State University.

It’s hydrogen sulfide that can be the deadliest of the gases created when manure decomposes — along with methane, ammonia and carbon dioxide, Andersen said.

A detailed graphic on how a hog manure it operates

A detailed graphic on how a hog manure it operates and functions. (Photo: The Register)

But farmers can run into trouble when doing maintenance work below the slats — or in pump pit areas, where the manure is accessed to fertilize farm fields. Large ventilation fans and curtains are used to help ensure the air is safe for people and animals in a pig barn.

“When you’re working in the animal environment, you’re relatively safe,” Andersen said. “But whenever you’re working below the slats — or where manure is being disturbed — that can be highly dangerous.

“Typically, we try to avoid going into the manure pits at all cost for this very reasons,” he said.

Something as simple as dropping equipment in the manure can send bubbles of hydrogen sulfide into the air. It’s especially a problem when people are in confined spaces.

“When something breaks the surface of the manure or if the person is in the manure, moving around, that causes more hydrogen sulfide to come out of the manure,” Andersen said. “That can cause unconsciousness and untimely death.”

PREVIOUS PIT DEATHS

The Iowa case is not isolated; on July 7 a father and son were killed at a Wisconsin farm while trying to retrieve a broken wheel from a hog manure pit, according to theBullvine, a news outlet for dairy farmers.

In 2007, four Virginia family members and a hired farm hand were killed by gases at a dairy farm while trying to save one another, according to the Washington Post.

Tragedy often is multiplied when family, friends and coworkers try to help someone overcome in a manure pit, Andersen said.

“Someone else tries to rescue them and is overcome by gas as well,” he said.

Andersen recommends caution when working below the slats — and over the manure pit. It’s also dangerous when manure is being agitated before its applied to fields as fertilizer.

“I would prefer you use some sort of breathing apparatus,” he said.

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