Friday, January 20, 2017

Book Review: Killing Horses

Book Review: 'Killing Horses' by Judy Piatt

In the Spring of 1971 Judy Piatt (1938 – 2013), a 32 year-old single mother of two young daughters, was the part owner and operator of Shenandoah Stables in Moscow Mills, a village northwest of St. Louis, Missouri.

Shenandoah Stables, besides housing the horses of Piatt and those horse owners who chose to board their animals there, had an dirt-floor arena used for horse shows. As May of 1971 unfolded, the dust raised in the arena whenever it was used was enough of a problem for Piatt to decide to have it oiled.

Among the regular attendees at horse shows at the stables were Russell and Evelyn Bliss, who owned their own stables in nearby Ellisville. Russell Bliss was an affluent, self-made businessman who specialized in picking up and disposing of ‘waste oil’ from service stations, power plants, and chemical plants. One method that Bliss used to dispose of the oil was to spray it on dirt roads and arenas to prevent dust from forming.

At 7:20 am on May 26, a Bliss tanker truck pulled up at Shenandoah Stables and the driver, Gary Lambarth, sprayed an estimated 1500 – 2000 gallons of oil onto the arena. The fee: $150.

Immediately upon the application of the oil, Piatt noticed that the oil had a powerful acrid odor that stung her eyes. Upon questioning, Lambarth told that the oil contained ‘special stuff’ for ‘special customers’. 

Within the week, Piatt began noticing dead birds in the vicinity of the stables……her cats had lost patches of their fur and developed open lesions in their skin….and Mama cat’s new litter all had died. Then Mama cat died. Soon all twelve of the ‘stable cats’ had died, yowling in agony as their faces swelled and pus oozed from their closed eyelids.

Then Piatt noticed that her daughters Andi and Lori had developed a strange acne – marked by blackheads – on their faces and chests.

In early June, Ruff, the family dog, became seriously ill. His fur began falling out and sores, oozing pus, developed all over his body. Ruff died despite veterinary treatment.

As June turned to July, an increasingly uneasy Piatt was stunned to see her beloved horses becoming ill. Her veterinarian, James Evans, was unable to provide anything more than supportive treatment….which did nothing to stop the illness.

The horses began dying. They lost their appetites, had diarrhea, stumbled and fell, developed skin lesions and sores. 

Evans suspected that the oil sprayed on the arena contained a poison. Autopsies conducted at the University of Missouri Veterinary School noted that the internal organs of the dead horses displayed severe pathologies associated with some form of poisoning.

Piatt herself became ill. And then in August, six year-old Andi became seriously ill, hemorrhaged blood, and was hospitalized. Over the next several months she lost half her body weight.

The remainder of 1971….and then 1972…….and 1973……..turned into nightmares in which more horses died, Piatt and her daughters got sicker, and Piatt was forced to close the Stables and move. She confronted Russell Bliss about what sort of contaminant might have been present in the oil used to spray the arena at Shenandoah Stables. Bliss denied that the oil was contaminated – as far as he was concerned, it was ‘plain ole waste oil’.

What Judy Piatt didn't know is that Bliss earned considerable income from applying 'waste oil' as a dust control measure. And one of his major clients was the town of Times Beach, located 17 miles southwest of St Louis............

'Killing Horses' (400 pp; Lightnin' Ridge Books, Missouri) is based on decades of notes, photographs, and other documents Judy Piatt assembled as part of a lawsuit she had filed against Bliss and his company, and later, as an environmental activist.

In short chapters, Piatt delivers a first-person narrative of her ordeal. It is clear from the start of the deaths of the animals at her stables that the veterinary and public health infrastructures were completely unprepared to deal with mass poisoning events; the EPA, which began operating in December 1970, simply was not a presence. If not for the dogged efforts of a team of CDC investigators, the cause of the contamination likely would never have been discovered.

'Killing Horses', which was written entirely by Piatt with no editorial assistance, is not a perfect book. Many of the chapters recounting the demises of one treasured horse or pony or colt after the other are probably going to seem tedious to readers who are not horse lovers. 

But the final third of the book, when Piatt and Shenandoah Stables co-owner Frank Hampel begin conducting their own investigation of Bliss's operation, is an interesting - and very alarming - account of how the illicit dumping of toxic chemicals was widespread across Missouri.

The verdict ? Given the dearth of books dealing with the firsthand consequences of the Toxic 70s, 'Killing Horses' represents a worthwhile narrative. 

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