116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Government safety inspectors will not be looking into the death last week of an experienced Quad Cities scuba diver who failed to surface from a dive to repair a broken cable at the bottom of a million-gallon anaerobic digester where cattle manure and food waste generate biogas.
Bob Baenziger Jr., 54, of East Moline, died around 10 a.m. June 8 when he was unable to return to the top of the liquid in the tank at Sievers Family Farm in Stockton, according to New Liberty Fire Chief Chad Petersen.
“As his fiancee was trying to pull him up, there were complications and he didn’t surface,” Scott County Sheriff’s Capt. Joe Caffery said. “For whatever reason, he relayed to her through radio communications that he was taking his helmet off. So when she pulled the rope up, the helmet came up.”
A team of commercial divers from Chicago later recovered Baenziger’s body from inside the tank. The State Medical Examiner has done an autopsy on Baenziger, but does not yet have results about the cause and manner of his death.
Because Baenziger was a self-employed contractor, he was exempt from Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspections, Iowa OSHA Administrator Russell Perry said. And the farm, which has 10 or fewer employees, also doesn’t fall within the purview of the worker safety agency.
“Therefore, the investigation will be closed with no further action,” Perry said.
The incident originally was described as happening in a manure tank, but it was in one of the farm’s two digester tanks, where cow manure and food waste are used to create methane, which can generate electricity and heat.
The Sievers Family Farm digester system, operated since 2013, is one of four on-farm digester systems in Iowa.
The same day Baenziger died, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a bill that allows on-farm digesters, rather than open-air manure pits, at animal feeding operations
Owner Bryan Sievers did not return a text and call seeking comment about Baenziger’s death. He told The Gazette in April the temperature in the tanks is maintained between 99 and 105 degrees to encourage bacteria and microorganisms to break down the waste into biogas.
There was some question after Baenziger’s death whether the temperature in the tank was higher when he went into it with full scuba gear and an oxygen tank.
Petersen, the fire chief who was one of the first emergency responders on the scene, said the water at the surface of the tank was 120 degrees, which was too hot for the commercial divers brought in to recover Baenziger’s body.
“We were not anticipating that kind of heat,” Petersen said. “We knew at that point in time we had to do something different.”
Peterson, who also is a volunteer with the Bennett Fire Department, called in neighboring fire crews to haul nearly 100,000 gallons of water from a nearby quarry to cool the tank. After they added the water, foam at the top of the digester dissipated and the divers could see Baenziger’s body, floating above several feet of manure and food waste solids at the bottom of the tank and were able to make the recovery, Petersen said.
Frank Frosolone, owner of Northern Divers USA, the company that recovered Baenziger’s body, said it did not appear Baenziger had on the proper gear for a dive into liquids contaminated with manure and food waste.
“It’s a contaminated dive, so we had to use specialized suits with double seals and triple backup air supply and communications. You got to have the right stuff,” he said. Frosolone said he did not believe Baenziger was using protective equipment, such as a harness or a backup air source. “He didn’t have any of that stuff,” he said.
Baenziger was an experienced diver, trained in the U.S. Army, who had done commercial dives at offshore oil wells 20 years ago, said his mother, Linda Baenziger, of Davenport. More recently, Baenziger had completed dives at a nuclear facility and on the Mississippi River, she said.
“He did a lot on the river,” said Quinton Baenziger, Bob Baenziger’s son, from West Des Moines. “If a barge would get a rope caught in its prop, he would do that. Or repair a hole in a barge itself. He had experience doing underwater welding.”
Baenziger’s primary job was as an independent contractor, who installed insulation and windows and did other major and minor home repairs.
Baenziger’s fiancee, Eliza Bisbee, who was there when the accident happened, said he “loved golf and anything water. Jet Skis, tubing, just floating, fishing.”
Unusual farm accident
Hundreds of farmers and farmworkers die each year from work-related injuries. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the farm fatality rate in 2017 was 20.4 deaths per 100,000 workers. Transportation incidents, including tractor rollovers, are the leading cause of farm deaths.
Baenziger’s death and the 22-hour recovery of his body from a digester tank was a first for many of the law enforcement officers and rescue personnel.
“We do respond to farm-related accidents, but typically they are a tractor that overturned in a ditch or a combine fire. Sometimes there’s an entrapment in a grain bin,” Caffery said. “When the call came in and it was a million-gallon manure pit, that was a new one for me.”
T. Renee Anthony, a University of Iowa professor of Occupational and Environmental health, said any time farmers make repairs in a confined space, such as a digester or a grain bin, they should test the air to determine potential contaminants, check to see if the repair person has the proper gear and figure out how they will get the person out if there’s an emergency.
“Nobody wants to have a fatality on their farm,” she said. “Every farmer that has a digester or manure storage needs to know there are life-and-death consequences of going into those spaces.”
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