For residents of Mead, Nebraska, the first sign that something was wrong was the stench, the smell of something rotten. People reported eye and throat irritation and nosebleeds. Then the bee colonies began to die, the birds and butterflies appeared disoriented, and the companion dogs fell ill, staggering with dilated pupils.
There is no mystery as to the cause of the concerns in Mead, a farming community so small that its 500 residents refer to it as a village and not as a city.
After multiple complaints to state and federal officials and an investigation by a University of Nebraska researcher, all the evidence points to what should be an unlikely culprit: an ethanol plant that, like many others in the United States, turns the corn in biofuel.
The company, called AltEn, is supposed to be good for the environment, using high-starch grains like corn to annually produce about 25 million gallons of ethanol, a practice that regulators generally hail as an environmentally friendly source of automobile fuel. Ethanol plants also often produce a by-product called distillery grains to sell as nutritious feed for livestock.
But unlike most of the other 203 US ethanol plants, AltEn has been using seeds coated with fungicides and insecticides, including those known as neonicotinoids or “neonics,” in its production process.
Company officials have heralded AltEn as a “recycling” place where agribusinesses can dump their excess supply of pesticide-treated seeds, a strategy that gave AltEn free supplies for its ethanol, but also left it with a waste product too laden with pesticides to feed animals.
Instead, AltEn has been amassing thousands of pounds of a smelly lime green fermented bean mixture, distributing some to farm fields as a “soil conditioner” and accumulating the rest on its plant grounds.
It is these wastes that, according to some researchers, are dangerously polluting water and soil and probably also pose a threat to the health of animals and people. They point to tests ordered by state officials that found neonics in AltEn waste at levels many times higher than is considered safe.
“Some of the levels recorded are off limits,” said Dan Raichel, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who has been working with academics and other environmental protection groups to monitor the situation in Mead. “If I lived in that area with those levels of neon entering the water and the environment, I would be concerned for my own health.”
Importantly, Raichel and other observers say the situation at Mead is a warning sign, an example of the need for stricter regulations on pesticide-coated seeds marketed by large companies such as Bayer AG and Syngenta.
Neonics in food and water are considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a range of up to 70 parts per billion (ppb) depending on the specific pesticide. The agency sets different benchmarks for “aquatic life” freshwater invertebrates. For the neonic known as clothianidin, the benchmark is 11 ppb and 17.5 ppb for a neonic called thiamethoxam.
At the AltEn property, state environmental officials recorded clothianidin levels at a staggering 427,000 ppb in testing one of AltEn’s large waste hills. Thiamethoxam was detected at 85,100 ppb, according to tests ordered by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.
In an AltEn sewage lagoon, clothianidin was recorded at 31,000ppb and thiamethoxam at 24,000ppb. A third dangerous neonic called imidacloprid was also found in the lagoon, at 312ppb. The EPA aquatic life benchmark for imidacloprid is 0.385ppb. AltEn’s lagoon system has a capacity of approximately 175 million gallons.
High levels of 10 other pesticides were also found in the plant pond. At least four pesticides on corn used by AltEn, including clothianidin and thiamethoxam, are known to be “harmful to humans, birds, mammals, bees, freshwater fish,” and other living creatures, state regulators said in a letter. from October to AltEn.
State officials have cited the plant for “noncompliance” with various rules designed to prevent contamination, saying in the October letter that they were concerned AltEn was not properly disposing of the waste and noted the possibility of “short-term and surface and groundwater in the longer term ”.
“It is a really significant pollution event that is impacting the local ecosystems and the community there,” said Sarah Hoyle, who specializes in pesticide issues for the Xerces Society, an Oregon-based conservation organization that helps research the problem. in Mead.
Neither Scott Tingelhoff, AltEn’s CEO, nor two other plant officials responded to multiple requests for comment from The Guardian.
Last year Tingelhoff told a local television station that the company was working with state regulators to address the concerns.
Mead residents say they were concerned about waste from the plant that has not been left on the plant property. In addition to the quantities taken to farms for distribution over the cultivated area, it appears that even more has seeped and spilled from the sewage ponds into adjacent waterways.
AltEn has also been applying its wastewater to the surface. Some Mead residents fear that the well water their homes depend on is now contaminated, while researchers also worry about possible contamination from an underground aquifer that supplies water throughout the US Midwest.
They are also unhappy with what they say has been more than two years of regulatory failure to protect the community.
“I have received a lot of rejection from people in the state,” said area resident Paula Dyas, who filed a complaint with the state when her dogs became ill after ingesting some of the waste that had been dumped in a neighboring farm field. His pets have recovered, but they were so ill that he feared lasting damage. “You just don’t take into account how much of these chemicals we are putting into the ground and what it will ultimately do to animals, to wildlife,” he said.
Jody Weible, the former chair of Mead’s planning commission, tried to enlist the help of state political leaders and regulators in dealing with what she calls the “poison” coming out of AltEn. The plant is about a mile from his 34-year-old home.
“I emailed the EPA, water, parks and conservation folks, pretty much anyone I could think of,” Weible said. “They all say they don’t think they can do anything about it.”
Other neighbors living near the plant have informed state officials about strange diseases and dead or dying birds.
After receiving multiple complaints, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture ordered AltEn to stop distributing its wastes to agricultural fields. But that has meant that more and more are accumulating at the ethanol plant site or washing into its ponds. AltEn has also begun incinerating some of the waste and storing “biochar” in outdoor bags on the plant’s property, a practice that is of further concern to area residents.
State regulators say they have not tested the water, soil or vegetation outside the plant’s property and are not aware of broader potential harm from the spread of AltEn’s waste. But Judy Wu-Smart, a University of Nebraska researcher who studies the health of bees, has done some testing and said there is little doubt that the plant’s contamination has spread far beyond its limits.
In an academic article he shared with regulators and other researchers, Wu-Smart said that every hive kept at a university research farm located a mile from Mead has died, losses that coincided in time with AltEn’s use of treated seeds. with neon. He has also reported shortages of other common insects in the area and has video recordings of birds and butterflies in the area that appear to be neurologically impaired.
After finding neonic debris in vegetation and tracing the waterways that connect the university’s land to AltEn, Wu-Smart is concerned that a widespread pollution event from high levels of neonics is affecting the environment and possibly the people who live In the area.
“There is a red flag here. Bees are just a bioindicator of something very wrong, ”said Wu-Smart. There is an “urgent need to examine the potential impacts on local communities and wildlife,” he said.
Neonics are absorbed through the roots of plants as they grow and can persist for years in the environment and are blamed, along with other pesticides, for the so-called “insect apocalypse.” Insecticides have also been linked to serious defects in white-tailed deer, deepening concerns about the chemical’s potential to harm large mammals, including people.
The European Union banned the outdoor use of neonic clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam in 2018, and the United Nations says that neonics are so dangerous they should be “severely” restricted. But in the US, neonics are widely used.
Not just Nebraska at risk
Meghan Milbrath, an assistant professor of entomology at Michigan State University, said the implications of AltEn’s practices “go far beyond Mead.”
“As we’ve seen here, poorly managed treated seeds can result in significant contamination that disrupts ecosystems and puts communities at risk,” said Milbrath.
The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) said it “does not have an opinion” on the source of the bees’ deaths and lacks “jurisdiction” in the matter. The state agency said it was continuing “to review operations and activities at the facility.”
And while the state has not stopped AltEn from ingesting pesticide-coated seeds for ethanol production, it has directed AltEn to implement a groundwater monitoring plan and other mitigation measures, although the state has noted multiple issues with compliance. The state has also directed AltEn to dispose of its waste in a permitted solid waste disposal facility.
Residents wonder whether or not that will happen, pointing to large piles of green waste that still surround the facility.
Neither Tingelhoff, AltEn’s CEO, nor two other plant officials responded to a request for comment.
But state officials declined to be interviewed for this story, although Blayne Glissman, a NDEE waste permitting specialist, offered a defense for the ethanol operation, saying he believed AltEn officials were simply “hardworking people trying to earn a living”.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism