How silage gas buildups can turn deadly

MILLERVILLE — Two farm families in Millerville have filled their silos with corn and grain countless times, but on Dec. 21, a problem with a sealed silo led to tragedy.

Inside the silos, which were full of moisture, shelled corn — or silage — started to ferment and produce carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, gasses which are heavier than air and settle.

Longtime animal science and agriculture expert Charlie Stoltenow with North Dakota State University Extension explains gases can crowd out oxygen and suffocate people who end up in the bottom of sealed silos where it settles.“(The) air all around is good,” Stoltenow said. “But if you get below that level you get overcome … they call it poisonous gas, but it is simply lack of oxygen.”

Because of the weight of the gas, even if the top of the silo is open it won’t clear, Stoltenow said. The gases can cause people to lose consciousness in seconds and kill quickly because there is no available oxygen. Sometimes fire departments are called to a farm for a silo fire when it really turns out to be gas in the form of a cloud trying to escape the silo. Firefighters are trained to deal with gas buildups, but they can be tricky to deal with.

“You could have a toxic environment or flammable environment or someone with a medical issue with no hazardous environment,” said Fargo Fire Department Battalion Chief Jason Ness.