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Nebraska’s Kenzie Knuckles (2) serves against Minnesota in the third set on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, at the Devaney Sports Center.


Govt-and-politics
editor's pick topical alert featured
Mead residents demand answers about efforts to clean up AltEn at town hall
  • Updated

MEAD — A few miles north of AltEn, the ethanol plant believed responsible for contaminating the Saunders County countryside with pesticides, residents of Mead are demanding answers.

What is being done to clean up the tens of thousands of tons of wet distiller's grains left stinking at the facility, or the poisoned wastewater left to fester in the lagoons?

Why has it taken citizens and scientists to discover the systemic pesticide pollution and a news outlet in Europe to give it the attention it deserved?

Where are the officials from the plant, or the seed companies that sent their discarded product to the village of 500 people for years without much concern for what happened to it?

Is anyone going to study what happens to the animals, the humans, the children?

Where are the state and local elected leaders, the Natural Resources District, the Environmental Protection Agency?

Does anyone care what happens to Mead, Nebraska?

A panel hosted Monday night by Bold Nebraska, the Nebraska Chapter of the Sierra Club, Nebraska Conservation Voters and Nebraska Communities United gave what answers are known so far.

Local residents Jody Weible and Paula Dyas told of their early efforts trying to bring attention to the products coming out of AltEn to the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, which met with little response.

Janece Molhoff of Ashland recounted the gaps in Nebraska's regulations governing clean water as determined by a study done by the League of Women Voters.

KENNETH FERRIERA, Journal Star 

Mead-area residents listen intently during a town hall meeting with panelist regarding the AltEn ethanol plant at Mead Covenant Church on Monday. 

Agricultural journalist Leesa Zalesky gave an overview of the history of AltEn, including the 2007 bankruptcy and relaunch of the ethanol plant near Mead in 2015, which led to a host of environmental issues.

And researchers Judy Wu-Smart, an entomologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and John Schalles, a biologist at Creighton University, previewed the upcoming efforts to put a scale on the problem.

All of that was well and good, the roughly 60 people in attendance said, about half of them from Mead.

"We want real answers," said Larry Moody, who lives on the southern edge of Mead. "We've been forgotten and left out."

His wife Carrie described developing health issues and pondered if they could be related to the emissions coming from the plant.

Others also spoke of worsening health issues. About a dozen or so raised their hand when former state Sen. Al Davis, who moderated the event, asked if anyone knew someone who believed they were sick from living close to the plant.

Cody Morris told of how his family have developed chronic sinus infections after moving to Mead a few years ago, never having experienced them before.

"When do we the people stop this?" Morris asked to applause.

KENNETH FERRIERA, Journal Star file photo 

The AltEn ethanol plant near Mead in early April.

Dave Domina, an attorney from Omaha, urged the residents of Mead and Saunders County to stay organized and continue working together for making a change.

That's what got beer sales stopped in Whiteclay, Domina said, and that's what can draw attention and resources to Mead.

He also urged people to contact Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, who has the authority to request the EPA come in and investigate the site for cleanup.

At the end of 2½ hours, Weible, who has organized efforts to draw attention to the plant dating back to 2018, collected the emails and phone numbers of those interested to form a citizens committee.

"We're going to use it to call who we have to," she said.

Photos: Mead ethanol plant

Govt-and-politics
editor's pick topical alert
Mead plant received COVID funds amid environmental concerns, delinquent taxes
  • Updated

The Nebraska Department of Economic Development awarded AltEn more than $210,000 in COVID relief funds last year as the ethanol plant in Mead fell under increased scrutiny from environmental regulators.

AltEn used seed treated with pesticides rather than harvested grain to produce ethanol before it stopped operations in February after the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy had ordered it to stop pumping contaminated wastewater into a damaged lagoon system.

The state sued the Kansas-based company March 1, alleging more than a dozen violations of environmental regulations. AltEn disputed the allegations in a response filed in Saunders County District Court last week.

None of the ongoing environmental concerns stemming from AltEn's practices barred the company from applying for and receiving relief money, the Department of Economic Development said.

"The Ethanol Stabilization Program's purpose was to stimulate the economy, both for ethanol manufacturers and farmers," the department said in a statement, adding Nebraska's ethanol producers had lost an estimated $475 million in the pandemic, which would similarly affect corn growers.

Recipients only need be registered to operate in Nebraska, be in good standing with the Secretary of State's office, not be prohibited from receiving federal funding and be able to show they had been negatively impacted by COVID-19.

"DED did due diligence on these items, but cannot address items beyond the scope of this grant program," the department said.

The increasing number of site visits and violations being documented by the Department of Environment and Energy were not considered.

According to the Department of Economic Development, a total of $14 million in Grow Nebraska funds were awarded to 23 ethanol plants across the state.

The AltEn plant near Mead, which reported employing more than 60 people, received the least amount of stabilization dollars, according to a database maintained by the state.

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Ethanol producers such as Archer-Daniels-Midland in Columbus and KAAPA Ethanol in Ravenna received $1.8 million and $1.7 million, respectively, while Midwest Renewable Energy LLC in Sutherland received $235,000.

On its application for Ethanol Stabilization Program funds, obtained by the Journal Star through a public-records request, AltEn said operating costs had increased and fuel prices had dropped because of the pandemic.

"Quarantining employees was very problematic, as we don't have extra staff to cover extended unplanned employee absences," general manager Scott Tingelhoff wrote. "The decrease in fuel-grade ethanol prices was problematic, as we were operating at a loss just to stay open and to keep our employees working."

The application for stabilization funds said they would be used as working capital to pay operating expenses and would help AltEn continue its "COVID-19 prevention practices to keep our employees safe."

"We will use the funds for payroll and benefits for our employees that are critical to responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency," the application reads.

But just days after submitting an application for relief dollars, and a little more than a week before the funds would clear its account, AltEn paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to partially satisfy a tax lien filed against it by a Lincoln investment company.

Since 2015, when AltEn went into operation, the ethanol plant has failed to pay property taxes on two parcels it owns south of Mead, according to Saunders County tax records.

The delinquent taxes on the larger of the two parcels — a 92-acre area where the majority of the plant is situated — was put up for auction in 2017, where the tax certificate was purchased by JBGB Investments for more than $249,000.

JBGB Investments, after waiting the three years required by state law, began legal proceedings to foreclose on AltEn in March 2020, just days before the coronavirus put Nebraska into a state of emergency, after the company failed to make a payment on its delinquent taxes.

A Saunders County District Court judge later awarded JBGB Investments a lien against AltEn totaling more than $811,000 on Nov. 9.

AltEn applied to the state for COVID relief money on Nov. 12, and on Nov. 16, made a $450,000 payment to JBGB Investments to partially satisfy the judgment entered by the court.

State relief money was disbursed on Nov. 25, the Department of Economic Development said.

AltEn made a second payment in the amount of $85,804 to JBGB Investments on Feb. 4 —  the same day the Department of Environment and Energy ordered the ethanol plant to stop pumping wastewater into its damaged lagoons.

The case is listed as "Settled/Dismissed by Party" on the court website.

Jerry Pflanz, the president of JBGB Investments, said he regularly buys delinquent taxes as an investment, where he can earn 14% interest per year.

Reached by phone, the Lincoln businessman said he was unaware of the problems at the Mead ethanol plant: "I don't know anything about AltEn."

Photos: Mead ethanol plant

The AltEn ethanol plant near Mead in early April.


National
AP
Police: Minn. officer meant to draw Taser
  • Updated

BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn. — The police officer who fatally shot a Black man during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb apparently intended to fire a Taser, not a handgun, as the man struggled with police, the city’s police chief said Monday.

Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon described the shooting death Sunday of 20-year-old Daunte Wright as “an accidental discharge.” It happened as police were trying to arrest Wright on an outstanding warrant. The shooting sparked violent protests in a metropolitan area already on edge because of the trial of the first of four police officers charged in George Floyd’s death.

“I'll Tase you! I'll Tase you! Taser! Taser! Taser!” the officer is heard shouting on her body cam footage released at a news conference. She draws her weapon after the man breaks free from police outside his car and gets back behind the wheel.

After firing a single shot from her handgun, the car speeds away, and the officer is heard saying, “Holy (expletive)! I shot him.”

President Joe Biden urged calm Monday, following a night where officers in riot gear clashed with demonstrators. The president said he watched the body camera footage.

“We do know that the anger, pain and trauma amidst the Black community is real,” Biden said from the Oval Office. But, he added, that “does not justify violence and looting.”

The Minnesota governor instituted another dusk-to-dawn curfew, and law enforcement agencies stepped up their presence across the Minneapolis area. The number of Minnesota National Guard troops was expected to more than double to more than 1,000 by Monday night.

While dozens of officers in riot gear and troops guarded the Brooklyn Center police station, more than 100 protesters chanted Wright’s name and hoisted signs that read “Why did Daunte die?” and “Don’t shoot.” Some passing cars flew Black Lives Matter flags out of their windows and honked in support.

Organizers from the Movement for Black Lives, a national coalition of more than 150 Black-led political and advocacy groups, pointed to Wright’s killing as yet another reason why cities must take up proposals for defunding an “irreparably broken, racist system.”

Wright “should not have had his life ripped from him last night. The fact that police killed him just miles from where they murdered George Floyd last year is a slap in the face to an entire community who continues to grieve,” said Karissa Lewis, the coalition’s national field director.

Gannon said at a news conference that the officer made a mistake, and he released the body camera footage less than 24 hours after the shooting.

The footage showed three officers around a stopped car, which authorities said was pulled over because it had expired registration tags. When another officer attempts to handcuff Wright, a second officer tells Wright he's being arrested on a warrant. That's when the struggle begins, followed by the shooting. Then the car travels several blocks before striking another vehicle.

“As I watch the video and listen to the officer’s command, it is my belief that the officer had the intention to deploy their Taser but instead shot Mr. Wright with a single bullet," Gannon said. "This appears to me from what I viewed and the officer’s reaction in distress immediately after that this was an accidental discharge that resulted in the tragic death of Mr. Wright.”

A female passenger sustained non-life-threatening injuries during the crash, authorities said. Daunte Wright's mother, Katie Wright, said passenger was her son’s girlfriend.

The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was investigating.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said a decision on charges against the officer will be made by the Washington County attorney under an agreement adopted last year by several county prosecutors aimed at avoiding conflicts of interest. Freeman has been frequently criticized by activists in Minneapolis over his charging decisions involving deadly use of force by police.

Gannon would not name the officer or provide other details about her, including her race, other than describing her as "very senior.” He would not say whether she would be fired following the investigation.

Court records show Wright was being sought after failing to appear in court on charges that he fled from officers and possessed a gun without a permit during an encounter with Minneapolis police in June. In that case, a statement of probable cause said police got a call about a man waving a gun who was later identified as Wright.”


Crime-and-courts
editor's pick topical alert top story
Judge grants Nebraska inmate's request to be transported for abortion
  • Updated

A federal judge Monday granted a Nebraska prison inmate's emergency request for an abortion, ordering state prison officials to transport her to a clinic Tuesday so she can have the procedure.

The state had refused the inmate's request, prompting the woman — identified as "Jane Roe" — to file a federal civil rights lawsuit Friday.

U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Bataillon, in an order filed Monday morning, directed state prison officials to transport Roe to the Lincoln Planned Parenthood clinic Monday to complete a pre-abortion, "informed consent" counseling session required by state law and then return her to the clinic for an abortion Tuesday.

The Nebraska Attorney General's Office, in a settlement agreement with the ACLU of Nebraska, which filed the lawsuit, agreed to provide the transportation. But the Attorney General's Office stipulated that the compromise did not mean the state agreed that the inmate's medical rights had been violated.

Scout Richters, legal and policy counsel for the ACLU, said the organization is optimistic that Roe can obtain the time-sensitive care she needs and is "guaranteed by law."

"Right now, we’re focused on making sure that’s what happens," Richters said.

Roe, an inmate at the state’s women’s prison in York, became pregnant weeks before entering prison in February, according to her mother.

Roe, in her lawsuit, had argued that if she missed the Tuesday appointment at the clinic, she might be denied the right to have an abortion because the Lincoln clinic only does the procedure for women up to 16 weeks and six days. She was 15 weeks and three days pregnant Friday, according to the lawsuit.

The ACLU of Nebraska argued that courts have upheld an inmate's right to access to a legal abortion for more than 50 years and that the state was violating the woman's civil rights. Her family, the lawsuit said, had offered to pay all costs associated with the procedure, transportation and security.

Bataillon ordered Roe to deliver a $355 cashier’s check to the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office by 10 a.m. Monday, to cover those costs.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, at a press conference Monday, declined to comment when asked if he was involved in the decision to deny the inmate transportation and if he had something to say about the resolution of the dispute.

Top Journal Star photos for April

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