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I-Team: Mystery of what was killing animals, sickening children on NKY property may be solved

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I-Team: Poisoned land? Or family secret?

BUTLER, Ky. - A Campbell County family says it's solved the mystery of what was killing dozens of their animals and sickening their children. They blame a gas they say was emitting from an improperly installed septic system.

Bill and Angie Johnson have filed suit in Campbell County Circuit Court against the builder, Steffen Builders, as well as Daniel and Terry Meiser, the original homeowners who sold them the house on Hissem Road in Alexandria. Neither Don Steffen nor the Meisers would comment on this story.

The Johnsons say their children have suffered permanent medical disabilities and the family had to declare bankruptcy after walking away from what had been their dream property.

The I-Team first told you about this story in November 2011. Back then, neighbors blamed the family for continuing medical issues for their domestic and farm animals. The Cabinet for Family and Children investigated the family. The son of the former owners said they never had problems at the property.

Angie Johnson showed the I-Team receipts for tens of thousands of dollars of tests the family paid experts to conduct on soil, air and water. None of the results were conclusive. The Johnsons wanted to understand what was sickening their children and had caused 28 dogs, cats, horses and other animals to suffer seizures, weight loss and death.

"They would start getting wobbly. They would fall over, and they would go into respiratory distress and then they would foam at the mouth," said Angie Johnson.

With no answers, the family moved out, refusing to sell the property to another family.

"There was no way we could turn around and put it up for sale, knowing what was there," said Bill Johnson.

The county environmental health and safety director told us last year that none of the agency's tests came back as abnormal.

"All the information we have is that there doesn't seem to be an environmental exposure," said Steve Devine.

But the Johnsons kept looking for answers. They found a non-profit group in Cincinnati called TERA, or Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment. TERA's scientists looked at records including environmental exposures, veterinary records and medical records. TERA concluded that "harmful levels of airborne hydrogen sulfide may have existed at 14381 Hissem Road. Many of the symptoms among the dogs, horse and family members are consistent with inhaled hydrogen sulfide." TERA said the source might be the sewage system.

The Johnsons' attorney, Paul Dickman, says other experts then dug up the system and found major problems.

"A subsequent investigation found that the septic system installed at the house was installed completely improperly," Dickman said. "We had scientists and engineers go out and look at that and they found that it was installed improperly."

The original construction permit filed by the builder and original owners now being sued raises more questions. It shows that the Department of Health inspected the septic tank when it was installed in 1992. But the notes on the permit say the sewer was "covered" before the inspector came to the site. The inspector passed the system and signed the form. That name? Steve Devin, the same person the I-Team interviewed last year, as the current county health and safety director.

Devine didn't return our calls. The agency's public information administrator told the I-Team, "We are aware there might be legal action on that so we would rather not go on camera." She wouldn't comment further.

Angie Johnson says she's glad to have an answer, but it's too late for her kids.

"It really makes me angry because somebody knew. They knew. I would plead to people, I just want answers. I have my answers now," she said.

As for the house on Hissem Road, the bank sold it last week at the county courthouse.

Copyright 2012 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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