The lawsuit alleges that Prime Tanning Corp. of St. Joseph used hexavalent cromium to remove hair from hides, and the resulting waste product was given to area farmers as fertilizer.
The lawsuit claims the sludge contained high levels of hexavalent chromium even though the company told the state of Missouri that the sludge did not contain the carcinogen. The Department of Natural Resources had not found any data on the sludge in a review of 30 years of records regarding Prime Tanning, department communications director Susanne Medley said Wednesday.
Kansas City-based National Beef Packing Co. acquired Prime Tanning Leathers Co. last month and renamed it National Beef Leathers Co., which also is named in the suit. Neither Prime Tanning nor National Beef Packing returned calls seeking comment Wednesday.
Hours after the suit was filed, environmental activist Erin Brockovich, an environmental investigator and lawyers who filed the lawsuit met with 400 people at a community meeting in Cameron.
Brockovich told residents the situation is serious, but that they need to react with determination to stop National Beef Leathers from distributing the sludge, which she said has been given to farmers since 1983.
"I don't want everyone to panic and think they have to move out of Cameron tomorrow. You don't," she said. "This is the time to embrace yourself as a community, become proactive as a community and protect each other."
The Environmental Protection Agency worked with the state earlier in investigating the possible causes and presence of a possible tumor cluster in Cameron. On Wednesday, Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., whose district includes the area, wrote to the EPA asking that it examine what he called the new evidence on the sources of hexavelent chromium.
The lawsuit, filed in Clinton County Circuit Court in Cameron, was filed on behalf of William Kemper of Cameron and Janet Lasher of Gallatin.
Kemper's wife, Karen, died last May at age 44 from complications from a brain tumor. Lasher was diagnosed in February with lung cancer that has spread to her brain. The lawsuit contends they were exposed to hexavalent chromium because they were near the farmland where the sludge was applied.
Attorney Brian Madden, who is handling the case for Kansas City law firm Wagstaff Cartmell, stressed to the crowd that Cameron's water supply was not contaminated. And he said his firm has no plans to sue the farmers.
"None of the farmers knew, or should have known, that the sludge they were using had this chemical in it," he said.
The lawsuit claims thousands of tons of sludge containing the chemical was applied on farm ground in Andrew, Buchanan, DeKalb and Clinton counties so Prime Tanning could avoid paying for disposing of it in a landfill.
Brockovich was involved in winning a 1996 settlement for a California town exposed to the same carcinogen. Pacific Gas & Energy paid $333 million to settle that case. Brockovich became famous after the case was made into a movie starring Julia Roberts.