FFor years, the people of Mead, Nebraska, have cared about the ethanol plant that moved to their small rural community just over a decade ago. They feared that the terrible smells and strange diseases in the area could be related to the plant and its use of pesticide-coated corn seeds in its biofuel production process.
Those concerns recently turned to outrage and anger after environmental regulators were forced to acknowledge that, under their watch, the AltEn LLC ethanol plant has been polluting the area with a variety of pesticides at levels much higher than what it is considered safe.
The contamination has continued for years, exacerbated by accidental spills and leaks of the plant’s pesticide-laden waste, which has been stored in poorly maintained lagoons and piled on hills of a putrid lime-green mash called “wet cake.” The company had also distributed the waste to farmers in the area to be spread over the fields as a “soil conditioner.”
It was only earlier this year, after media reports exposed the issues, that state officials ordered the plant shut down and began efforts to clean up what many in the community see as a sprawling environmental disaster.
The state attorney general’s office sued the company for multiple alleged environmental violations, citing “an ongoing threat to the environment,” and last month, Nebraska lawmakers passed a bill that restricts the use of seeds treated with pesticides for ethanol production.
Mead residents say the plant crackdown is welcome, but in many ways it is too late. The lingering impact of pollution will not simply end the new law, nor will many of the industrial farming practices that caused it. Instead, pollution continues to wreak havoc and there are fears that Mead’s trauma could be repeated in other small towns across the state where large-scale industrial farming practices continue.
“I believe this is an environmental failure of colossal proportions and the blame can fall squarely on the feet of the governor and his staff, who simply closed their eyes to the environmental damage that is being done,” said the former Nebraska state senator, Al Davis, to The Guardian.
Fish kills are reported miles downstream from the plant. University researchers have reported the annihilation of dozens of bee colonies, and state officials have received reports of sick and dying geese and other birds, as well as disoriented dogs and unexplained ailments in people.
Regulators said they have found unsafe levels of pesticides in an agricultural pond, and there are concerns that the water used for drinking and irrigating crops is also contaminated, according to records from the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE). Pesticide residues have been detected in soil samples taken from a park in the area.
Meanwhile, the AltEn lagoons are flooded with millions of gallons of pesticide-laden sewage and 84 billion pounds of distillery grain by-products accumulate around the plant. State tests on water and by-product show staggeringly high levels of various pesticides associated with a variety of health problems for people and wildlife.
Carol Blood, a Nebraska state senator, said the situation in and around Mead, a small village of about 500 people, is “dire.” She is pushing for an investigation into AltEn’s practices and is planning a series of public meetings across the state to help assess the extent of environmental damage. “Based on the scale of the problem … it is an environmental catastrophe,” Blood said.
Neither the NDEE nor the governor’s office responded to questions about the situation raised by The Guardian.
AltEn’s attorney, Stephen Mossman, also declined to comment and AltEn CEO Scott Tingelhoff did not respond to requests to discuss the situation.
The pesticides that create the problems in and around Mead come from some of the world’s largest agricultural companies, which manufacture and sell seeds coated with different types of chemicals as a tool to protect growing crops from harmful insects and disease.
AltEn promoted itself as a “green recycling” place where agricultural companies could dispose of unwanted supplies of these pesticide-treated seeds. Bayer AG, which owns Monsanto, along with Syngenta, Corteva and other large companies, was among those dropping seeds coated with a variety of insecticides and fungicides at AltEn, according to AltEn marketing materials.
Companies could dispose of pesticide-coated corn, wheat and sorghum seeds free of charge at AltEn, and pay a fee to dispose of treated soybeans and other types of seeds, under the AltEn program.
Companies are now actively involved in cleaning. Emails between state regulators and Bayer’s senior manager of remediation Mark Bowers show Bayer overseeing a variety of actions on the AltEn site. Among other actions, Bayer is seeking to lease farmland in the area to house AltEn’s waste storage tanks and is working on a plan to spread the plant’s wastewater over fields in the area after the water is treated. to reduce pesticide levels.
In a statement, Bayer said it was addressing “wastewater and wet cake management priorities in conjunction with the development of a remediation plan led by the state of Nebraska.”
Syngenta said it was working with the other seed companies on “voluntary response activities” and is “committed to proper stewardship for the safe use of treated seeds.”
Corteva confirmed that he was part of the team working to “address the environmental conditions at the AltEn site.”
None of the companies answered questions about the amount of pesticide-laced seeds they deposited at AltEn over the years. A source close to the companies said they believed AltEn would handle the seeds responsibly and that they were not to blame for the contamination.
A history of trouble
The ethanol plant was first introduced at Mead in 2007 as part of a “closed loop” system developed by a company called E3 Biofuels. A 30,000 head cattle operation was installed adjacent to the ethanol plant. The operators said they would process the animals’ manure into methane gas to help feed the plant and use manure to fertilize the corn fields. By-product wet distillery grains could be returned to livestock, a common industry practice.
But after just a few months, the plant closed and E3 filed for bankruptcy in late 2007. AltEn then restarted the plant, telling regulators in 2013 that the plant would use grains, “mainly corn,” as its raw material. primary.
However, Nebraska regulators discovered in 2015 that AltEn was using pesticide-coated seeds, one of only two ethanol plants in the United States known to do so. Records show that by 2018 regulators knew that by-products contained “measurable” pesticide residues and by 2019 they knew that pesticides were present in “high concentrations.”
According to correspondence between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NDEE, tests performed on AltEn’s wet cake and wastewater showed “very high levels of pesticide residues,” including neonicotinoids, which are known neurotoxins. The fact that the material had been applied to fields in the area meant that pesticides could seep into groundwater and be absorbed into plant tissues, contaminating nectar and pollen and threatening wildlife, the EPA warned.
The NDEE ordered AltEn to stop distributing the waste for application on land in 2019 due to pesticide levels. But the agency did not stop the company from absorbing more pesticide-coated seeds.
Over the years, AltEn racked up multiple violations of environmental regulations, NDEE records show. But it wasn’t until February of this year that the NDEE ordered the plant shut down until the contamination was cleaned up.
Just days after the shutdown, a pipe connected to a 4-million-gallon digester tank ruptured, pulling toxins into waterways and spreading them at least 4.5 miles away, according to regulators. In May, another leak It was discovered in a pipeline adjacent to a sewage pond.
While regulators take soil and water samples, many area residents are concerned that the beef cattle operation adjacent to the AltEn plant has also been contaminated. They wonder how much the animals there may have been exposed to the pesticide concentrates through their food and water, and whether the people who consumed meat from those animals could have long-term health consequences.
“People want answers and action,” said Jane Kleeb, who chairs the Nebraska Democratic Party and is pushing for resources, such as medical testing and water filtration, for the people of Mead and the surrounding area.
Researchers from the University of Nebraska and Creighton University are now launching a 10-year study on the impacts on human and environmental health.
The situation is just the most recent example of how industrial farming practices can create dangerous dangers to human and environmental health, according to Blood, who grew up on a farm in Hastings, Nebraska, and suspects that the cancers developed by many Hastings residents were related to chemicals in soil and water. The area was designated as a federal superfund site due to contamination.
“There are a lot of things like this that happen in a lot of these little towns,” he said. “There are more Meads out there.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism