AltEn Ethanol Plant Closed, Facing Suit
It was originally touted to be the best of boons for the environment: when E-3 Biofuels planned to open an ethanol plant at Mead, Nebraska, it boasted the intent to be the only “full circle” energy system in existence. Methane produced by anaerobic digesters using manure from the associated 30,000 head feedlot, Mead Cattle Company, would power the plant, wet distillers grain made from local corn would feed the cattle in the feedlot. Local farmers could sell their corn directly and everyone would be happy.
But a February 12, 2021 spill of around four million gallons of wastewater, likely contaminated with high levels of pesticides and fungicides brought national attention to a situation at the ethanol plant, now known as AltEn.
Bill Thorson, Mead Village Board chairman, says now that it seemed doomed from the start.
“They ended up filing bankruptcy before they got it off the ground,” he said. “An explosion occurred before the plant was even up and running. Supposedly it was a new business, but if you follow the paper trail it’s the same owners and the same deal.”
The plant reopened in 2016 under the name AltEn, but soon the people of Mead noticed a horrible smell. Typically, the wet distillers grains that are the byproduct of ethanol production are fed to cattle; AltEn, however, has almost exclusively used expired treated seed to make ethanol, so the distillers grain is full of toxic chemicals and cannot be fed to livestock. Instead, it has been piled up at the facility to decompose. Some of the product was spread on fields as a supposedly beneficial soil amendment, but the residents of the tiny town have been complaining about the smell and dealing with allergies and respiratory symptoms for several years.
AltEn applied for a permit to spread the distillers grain in October of 2018, which the Nebraska Department of Agriculture (NDA) granted. However, testing done by the NDA in 2019 showed dangerously high levels of pesticide residues, with azoxystrobin at 2,340 ppb, clothianidin at 427,000 ppb and thiamethoxam at 85,100 ppb; at AltEn’s proposed application rates the concentration of clothianidin per acre would have been eighty-five times higher than the maximum annual field load allowed by a typical registered pesticide label.
“The wet distillers grain was supposed to be ‘safe’ and beneficial to spread on fields as fertilizer,” Thorson said, “But this was found to not be true. Even when they were spreading some of it, it couldn’t be done during the summer months because there were crops growing in the fields, so it has piled up and we have had a constant smell of rotten grain.”
The village of Mead has raised complaints time and again, but they felt that regulatory agencies were brushing them off.
“We went to the NDEE, the EPA, the NRD, the Department of Ag,” Thorson said. “Everybody passed the buck. Nobody wanted to listen to a community of fewer than six hundred people. The EPA can’t regulate odors.”
Judy Wu-Smart, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Entomologist, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist, started working at the Eastern Nebraska Research Extension Center (ENREC) at Mead, Nebraska, in October of 2015 on a project researching the role tree lines play in pesticide drift and pollinating insect health.
Then all of the bees at the research center died. UNL maintains 85 honeybee colonies in 8 research and teaching apiaries across Nebraska. For the last several years, Dr. Wu-Smart experienced consistent and rapid losses of honeybee colonies only at the research apiaries around the ENREC.
“My predecessor successfully kept bees and made ample honey at ENREC prior to 2013,” Wu-Smart wrote in an August 2020 research paper. “However, since 2017, we have lost every hive placed at ENREC, over 36 hives impacting our research program by roughly $21,000 for the cost of bees, contaminated equipment, and lost honey revenue. Investigations into the timing, extent, and duration of bee losses coupled with pesticide residue data of milkweeds collected around ENREC have led us to believe that the water ways (streams, ditches, and channels) running through ENREC have potentially high levels of pesticide residues, including several systemic insecticides and fungicides common in seed coat treatments.”
Thorson says that it was Dr. Wu-Smart’s research to prove that the ENREC honeybees were dying of pesticide, insecticide and fungicide contamination that finally got the Mead citizens, and AltEn, the attention they deserved.
Judy Wu-Smart’s research stated, “In April, 2019, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) sampled water from the discharge lagoons as well as wetcakes showing levels of neonicotinoid insecticides clothianidin and thiamethoxam around 30,000-50,000 ppb and several fungicides as high as 200,000 ppb. The solid wetcake had twice as much neonicotinoid at 112,000 ppb clothianidin, 30,000 ppb thiamethoxam and, again, several fungicides were detected at high levels. For reference, the EPA considers the maximum safe level of neonicotinoids in food and water at 4-70 ppb.”
NDEE issued an emergency complaint on February 4, 2021 and ordered AltEn to immediately cease discharge of industrial wastewater into its wastewater lagoons. NDEE confirmed that AltEn, LLC near Mead, Nebraska, completed the shutdown at 4 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. Four days later the toxic spill of wastewater occurred.
“The spill wasn’t a good thing,” Thorson said, “but it definitely opened up some eyes to what’s going on at AltEn. We’ve finally got our senators and the Department of Agriculture talking about this.”
The Saunders County Treasurer has reported that AltEn is behind in taxes for two years to the tune of over $500,000. Nebraska media has also reported that AltEn collected over $210,000 in COVID-19 relief funds from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development in 2020. On March 1, the State of Nebraska and the NDEE filed a lawsuit against the owners of AltEn, requiring them to clean up the piles of rotten, toxin-laden distillers grains, estimated to total 84,000 tons. The Attorney General’s complaint details over 100 pages of repeated violations of multiple NDEE statues and failure to comply with safety and environmental regulations over the past six years.
AgFax reports that AltEn sent letters to seed companies in 2020 seeking more discarded seed corn and claiming to handle as much as 98 percent of the discarded treated seed in North America. The letter stated that the byproducts would be land-applied, even though the Nebraska Department of Agriculture had told the company to stop selling the distillers grain and stop applying it to soils because of the high concentrations of pesticides it contained after reports of dead wildlife in fields where the distillers grain had been spread.
“How can seed companies be so grossly mismanaged as to have hundreds of thousands of tons of unused, expired seed available to process on a daily basis?” Thorson asked. “The trucks going in there are just constant. Normally, seed corn companies have to pay landfills to dispose of the unused treated seed. The farmers are the ones getting ripped off. They are paying high prices per bag of seed, but in essence they are the ones paying for what gets thrown away, all that extra seed. Why can’t the companies treat the seed as it’s ordered? Then the unused seed would be fine to use for livestock feed. It’s just poor management and the farmers are paying for it.”
Dr. Wu-Smart expressed several ongoing concerns including contaminated water from AltEn’s lagoons overflowing into nearby waterways, the residual effects of the pesticide-laden distillers grain that had been spread across Nebraska fields, and the use of pesticide-laden discharge water from AltEn used to irrigate local fields.
“Bees are biological indicators of the surrounding environment,” she said. “We have yet to identify the exposure pathway causing mortality in our managed honeybees as well as observed low abundance and diversity of wild pollinators at ENREC but have refocused research aims to do so. Nebraska’s beekeeping industry is struggling and high losses of colonies in recent years indicate potentially larger statewide issues for which the causes of bee health decline require further assessment, particularly in context of the use of contaminated soil amendments by unknowing farmers. Additionally, the inability to keep bees alive around ENREC indicates a greater health concern highlighting the urgent need to examine potential impacts on local communities and wildlife as well as other research programs at ENREC.”
Dr. Wu-Smart said that UNL will seek funding to begin gathering data to launch a wide-scale examination of these concerns as well as potential environmental, ecological, and human health impacts from the situation at AltEn.
Experts spoke to Mead residents recently about the litigation and the potential for local water and soil contamination. University researchers want to study the long-term health effects of exposure to the tens of thousands of tons of seed treated with multiple forms of neonicotinoid pesticides and fungicides that have been putrefying at AltEn. As these chemicals are water soluble, there is high potential that they could leach into ground water according to John Schalles, a biology professor at Creighton University.
“The longer that sits on the ground and in lagoons that are leaking, the worse it gets,” he said.
Mead residents have expressed concerns that AltEn will file bankruptcy yet again and they will be left to clean up a mess that no one really knows the extent of yet. AltEn and Mead Cattle Co. are both owned by the Langley family of Kansas. The Saunders County Board of Supervisors recently tabled a vote on a conditional use permit to transfer operations of the feedyard to a Texas company, Champion Feeders. Supervisors required testing of lagoons and groundwater at the site and allowed the University of Nebraska Medical Center to conduct a study of the site.
Mead residents worry that this may be a move by AltEn to walk away from the environmental cleanup needed at the plant.
“I’m concerned they are not going to clean up that pile,” Jody Weible told AgFax. “They are just going to leave it for us to clean up and they will not be accountable for anything. They will walk away from this for free and there will not be any repercussions for it.”
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News