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American Ballet Theatre dancers Chloe Misseldine and Jose Sebastian perform in a dress rehearsal in California. The company will open its "Dance Across America" outdoor tour in Pioneers Park on July 1.  


Govt-and-politics
editor's pick topical alert
With questions about cleanup unsettled, Mead officials table decision on ethanol plant permit
  • Updated

MEAD — At the end of a two-hour meeting Monday night, the Mead Planning Commission put off a decision on what to do about AltEn's conditional use permit.

Unlike most other ethanol plants in the state and across the country, AltEn used pesticide-treated seeds to produce fuel rather than harvested grain, leaving behind contaminated byproducts pointed to as being harmful to pollinators, animals and people.

Since February, the plant has been shut down after the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy ordered AltEn to stop pumping wastewater into its overfilled lagoon system. The company recently laid off all but three of its employees.

After approving a conditional use permit for the ethanol plant in 2014, the Mead Planning Commission is now considering pulling that permit, citing a long history of noncompliance, a lack of transparency and what some commissioners said was an unwillingness to be a good partner with the Saunders County village.

The commission ultimately put off a decision, opting instead to take time to consider a proposal put forward by the plant. Through its attorney, Stephen Mossman of Lincoln, AltEn asked the commission to suspend the conditional use permit rather than revoking it outright.

That action would allow the AltEn — or a third party — to continue cleanup of the site, monitored by the Department of Environment and Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Maureen Freeman-Caddy, Mead's attorney, said the Nebraska Attorney General's Office signed off on the plan, which would allow AltEn to continue participating in environmental remediation efforts.

The request made of the planning commission from AltEn also stipulated the facility would not produce any more ethanol unless given permission from Mead's Board of Trustees.

That request may be a moot point, however.

Days before the planning commission met to consider AltEn's future, the Legislature on a 48-0 vote sent a bill (LB507) to the desk of Gov. Pete Ricketts that would effectively outlaw the ethanol plant's business model.

The bill, from Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard, prohibits ethanol producers from using treated seeds as a feedstock, if the byproduct cannot be fed to livestock or applied to land.

Ricketts will likely sign the bill this week. Because of an emergency clause attached to LB507, its provisions will immediately become state law.

Many of the nearly 40 people in attendance — including members of the commission — said they had little faith AltEn would follow through on its promises, however.

"We've got pages and pages that show they haven't complied with any of this stuff," said commission member Connie Schliffke.

Wyatt Swartz said he favored revocation, accusing AltEn's management of disregarding directives from state regulators and others.

"Part of our concern is the history of companies out there that they just don't care," Swartz said.

Paula Dyas, who was among those who filed complaints against AltEn after her dogs became sick from eating pesticide-laden distiller's grains from the plant, said she wasn't "thrilled" with the thought AltEn would still have agency over its operations.

"But I want them to clean up the mess they created," Dyas said. "I feel like they are responsible."

Questions about cleanup

Actions taken by regulatory agencies, local governments and state legislators have effectively closed AltEn, but the question of who is responsible for cleaning up the facility — and how — remains unanswered.

AltEn for years disposed of some of its wet distiller’s grains in landfills owned by Waste Connections in Nebraska and Iowa, which is permissible under guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency and Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy.

At its peak in late spring and early summer 2020, dozens of truckloads were leaving AltEn every day, bound primarily for the Butler County Landfill near David City, or making the 60-mile trip to either the G and P Landfill south of Milford, or the Loess Hills Sanitary Landfill near Malvern, Iowa.

Dave Meyer, who has lived in a housing subdivision about a mile north of the landfill in Mills County, Iowa, for a little more than a decade, said neighbors had never experienced any problems with the facility until the last two years or so.

That’s when they started seeing more trucks headed toward the landfill with loads Meyer described as smelling like raw sewage: “It stunk to hog heaven,” he said.

Residents living near the Butler County Landfill were hit with a similar stench last fall, according to records maintained by the Department of Environment and Energy, with evidence that it originated from AltEn.

“The garbage reeked so horribly outside it nearly made me gag,” one woman wrote on Aug. 3, 2020. “Is there a limit that a person must tolerate?”

Responding to a complaint from another neighbor a few days later, Ryan Boyer, the facility’s manager, told state regulators the landfill had accepted 33 tons of distiller’s grains, although the email doesn’t specify the origin of the waste product.

With the odor complaints mounting, Kelly Danielson, district manager for Waste Connections, said the Texas-based company recently stopped accepting the distiller’s grains from AltEn.

The decision was made not because the byproducts are contaminated with neonicotinoid pesticides like clothianidin and thiamethoxam, found at concentrations of 427,000 parts-per billion and 85,000 parts-per billion, respectively.

Rather, Danielson said, the landfills were not receiving enough dry household trash to mix with the wet distiller’s grains from AltEn.

“We could still do it if we wanted,” Danielson said, noting the pesticides aren’t considered hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which governs the disposal of solid waste, “but we’ve got neighbors and we’re trying to do the right thing.”

AltEn continued to manufacture ethanol from discarded treated seeds even after area landfills began turning back trucks from the plant, leading to an estimated 84,000 tons of distiller’s grains being stored in long rows on the site.

That amount on its campus was recently added to after AltEn recovered some of the approximately 37,000 tons of distillers grains sold to area farmers as a soil conditioner, before the Nebraska Department of Agriculture issued a stop-sale order in May 2019.

Mead residents have also been vocal about AltEn's use of a biochar unit, which heats the distiller's grains to high temperatures, creating a charcoal-like substance.

Many, like Ray Loftus, who lives directly north of the plant, said they were concerned about emissions coming from the unit, which testing by the environment department showed doesn't remove all pesticides from the byproduct.

"It leaves a bad taste in everybody's mouth — literally," Loftus said.

Seed companies helping with cleanup

Another concern of environmentalists is the millions of gallons of effluent wastewater contaminated with pesticides being held in lagoons and portable above-ground storage tanks at the ethanol plant.

In late March, AltEn put forward a plan to treat the wastewater by pumping it from the lagoons through a carbon filtration system and into holding tanks, where it would be tested for various contaminants before it could potentially be land applied or discharged elsewhere.

The Department of Environment and Energy signed off on the pilot program — which the company claims has been effective in closed-loop tests in removing pesticides from the wastewater — but with several caveats.

AltEn has been prohibited from discharging any wastewater without permission, and has been directed to pump the treated wastewater back into its lagoons or into above ground tanks, where it must be sampled for an expanded list of pesticides and other compounds.

Meanwhile, representatives from Bayer — one of the seed companies that sent millions of pounds of discarded pesticide-coated seed to AltEn — have been attempting to secure 35-40 acres of land near the facility that could be used to set up a “tank farm” to hold the treated wastewater.

A spokeswoman for Bayer’s crop science division at its corporate office in St. Louis, Missouri, said the agricultural giant has been supporting the state’s efforts to address the situation at AltEn since mid-February.

“As one of the company’s former feedstock suppliers, we bear a responsibility to be part of the solution,” Bayer said in a statement.

It’s unclear if any other seed companies, which used AltEn as a “dumping ground” since the plant went into operation in 2015, according to one Mead village official, are working with the state on the cleanup.

To date, Bayer has not been successful in its effort to buy or lease land, and the Department of Environment and Energy said they have not received any permit application for a possible tank farm.

Despite an overwhelming majority of those who spoke at the public meeting favoring revocation, Mead's Planning Commission will sit on the decision for several weeks, electing to reconvene at the community center on May 19.

Bill Thorson, the chair of the Village Board of Trustees, which will need to ratify any decision the planning commission makes, said he wants the commission to suspend the permit.

He said the village of Mead doesn't have the expertise or the tax base to clean up AltEn by itself, and a suspended conditional use permit would be the right avenue to keep the ethanol plant operating "to clean itself up."

Photos: Mead ethanol plant

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PRINT ONLY: Election reminder

Voters in Lincoln will elect three at-large City Council members, school board members in four districts and two Airport Authority board members in Tuesday's general election.

POLLING PLACES

Polls for the city's general election are open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Find your polling place at votercheck.necvr.ne.gov/voterview/

Mailed ballots must be returned to the Lancaster County Election Commissioner’s Office, 601 N. 46th St., by 8 p.m.

CANDIDATES

The Journal Star posed questions for each of the candidates. Read their responses and watch videos of their interviews with the newspaper's editorial board @JournalStar.com (Search: Voter's Guide).


Dining
editor's pick topical alert
Malcolm landmark gets new life with restaurant opening
  • Updated

Ask Aaron King how he wound up developing a small-town restaurant, and he'll give you a one-word answer: COVID-19.

King was the operations manager at The Lincoln Marriott Cornhusker Hotel when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020 and was furloughed along with most of the hotel's employees when it shut down.

Though he went back to work after a couple of months, the experience provided a wake-up call and the impetus to pursue his longtime dream of owning his own restaurant.

He and his wife, Melissa, started looking for locations and landed on the building in downtown Malcolm that had most recently been home to Lippy's Barbecue but has a much longer and more storied history as the Branched Oak Inn.

"We fell in love with the building," said Melissa King, who is an adjunct professor of flute at Wayne State College.

To say the building needed someone to love it is an understatement.

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star 

Aaron King, owner of Genoa Food Co. in Malcolm, works on covering the bar with Brazilian cherry wood on April 26.

Aaron King said the restaurant and bar area, which is below the street grade, had chronic water problems, which led to mold growth, cracking and bowing in the concrete flooring and other problems.

The Kings closed on the sale of the building in mid-December and had contractors there the next day to begin working.

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star 

Restaurant manager Kelly Tyler wipes tables at the future home of Genoa Food Co. on April 26.

Now, after nearly five months of nonstop renovations both inside and out, the Kings are getting close to opening Genoa Food Co.

Aaron King said the restaurant will be a mixture of pub food, like artisan pizza and burgers, as well as entrees such as steaks and seafood. It will have a full bar and also will offer keno.

King, who has spent the past several years in hotel management but was trained as a chef, said he wants to meet the needs of what he sees as a "hugely diverse demographic" that includes local farmers, people heading out to the area lakes and Lincoln residents who might be looking to try something different.

King said he sees a huge opportunity because of a lack of restaurants in the area.

"When we started looking at this place, we saw a distinctly underserved area, not just Malcolm, but the surrounding community," he said.

The Malcolm Holding Co. built what was originally the Malcolm Community Hall in 1932 during the Great Depression.

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star 

The new concrete patio at Genoa Food Co. on April 26.

It served food downstairs in a divided setting where women and children were only allowed on the side where pop, ice cream and candy was sold, according to a history written by Maxine Carr Nelson Herman, whose parents, George and Agnes Carr, bought the building in the late 1930s. Herman’s husband, Andrae, would later buy it in 1978 after another owner had renamed it the Branched Oak Inn.

The restaurant served up steak, chicken and other staples to thousands of locals and visitors for decades, but it went bankrupt in 2008.

The building, which also has a large upstairs hall that has served at times as a community center, basketball court and even roller rink, came close to facing the wrecking ball, but it was eventually sold to the owners of another restaurant in town, Lippy's Barbecue, which moved in in 2017.

However, it only lasted a couple of years, closing in the summer of 2019. The building has been vacant ever since.

In addition to the restaurant, the Kings are planning a small market that will have a meat counter and offer take-and-bake and grab-and-go food, as well as dessert items.

Eventually, they want to renovate the upstairs space, which has a capacity of more than 200, and use it to host events and gatherings.

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star 

The upper floor of Genoa Food Co., originally Malcolm Community Hall, will open as a space for events once renovations are complete.

The restaurant and market initially will be open Tuesday-Saturday, with the market opening midmorning. The restaurant will be open only for dinner, at least initially.

The Kings had wanted to be open on Mondays as well, mainly because some other businesses in Malcolm that serve food items are closed that day, but they are having trouble finding enough staff, something the entire restaurant industry is dealing with right now.

King said he's offering to pay cooks $1 more than they are making now, but in two months he's only gotten one application.

To help ensure he doesn't run himself ragged, he's recruited a former colleague from Iowa to come help him out.

"My goal as his wife is to make sure he's not living in the kitchen," Melissa King said.

That being said, "I think people will be disappointed if they showed up and we didn't have some of his signature dishes," she said.

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star 

The building at 126 Second St. in Malcolm has a new look and a new restaurant that will open soon.

The Kings said the response from the community so far has been great, with people stopping by daily to check on progress.

"There's a lot of excitement in the area to get open," Aaron King said.

The Kings are planning a soft opening on May 7, with an all-day community open house on May 8.

Retro restaurants: Do you remember these Lincoln favorites?

Local
editor's pick
Greg Abel tapped as Buffett's successor at Berkshire Hathaway
  • Updated

OMAHA — For those who closely follow Berkshire Hathaway, Saturday’s shareholders meeting held a clue as to who may one day succeed Warren Buffett as chief executive.

“Greg will keep the culture,” vice chairman Charlie Munger said at one point during the Q&A session, a reference to Berkshire executive Greg Abel.

And now Buffett has confirmed it. Whenever the 90-year-old does step down as CEO, he will be succeeded by Abel.

“The directors are in agreement that if something were to happen to me tonight, it would be Greg who’d take over tomorrow morning,” Buffett told Becky Quick, the CNBC financial journalist who moderated the Q&A on Saturday.

MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Greg Abel

Buffett for years has said the board knows who it would choose to succeed him. And it has been speculated since Abel and Ajit Jain were named Berkshire vice chairmen in 2018 that one of the two would succeed him. Buffett tabbed Abel to oversee Berkshire’s noninsurance operations while Jain oversees insurance.

Buffett praised both Abel and Jain, and said the age of the two men was a deciding factor for Berkshire’s board. Abel, who will turn 59 next month, is about 10 years younger than Jain.

“They’re both wonderful guys,” Buffett said. “The likelihood of someone having a 20-year runway, though, makes a real difference.”

Buffett added: “If, heaven forbid, anything happened to Greg tonight, then it would be Ajit.”

Buffett said Munger’s slip was just an acknowledgment of what the board has known for some time.

“We’ve always at Berkshire had basically a unanimous agreement as to who should take over the next day,” said Buffett. “The world’s paying more attention now.”

When Abel and Jain were named Berkshire vice chairmen in early 2018, it took from Buffett’s plate the job of overseeing Berkshire's wide-ranging portfolio of operating companies and freed Buffett and Munger to focus their attention on investing.

James Shanahan, an analyst who rates Berkshire stock for Edward Jones, said Munger’s words Saturday probably forced Buffett to confirm to Quick after the meeting in California that Abel is his successor. Given how vague Buffett has been about succession, the disclosure was likely a reluctant one, Shanahan said.

“Still, Abel's coronation is not exactly a surprise,” said Shanahan, citing Abel's previous promotion to vice chair. “I also feel that most analysts and investors at least had Abel on the short list, if they hadn't already anticipated his appointment to the role.”

Even after Abel assumes the CEO role, Shanahan said, it's likely Abel will remain responsible for operations and capital management, and others within Berkshire will take the lead on investments.

Shanahan said he thinks the choice is a good one.

“We have a great deal of comfort with the future leadership of the company,” he said.

Overall, the stock market seemed to react positively to Buffett’s disclosure. Berkshire A shares were trading at midmorning Monday at $421,000, up more than 2% from Friday's closing price.

Buffett has long praised Abel, who rose through the ranks of Berkshire’s energy division.

He grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, where he acquired a lifelong love of hockey. 

He earned a degree in commerce from the University of Alberta and worked as an accountant in Canada and later at PricewaterhouseCoopers in San Francisco before moving in 1992 to CalEnergy, a California utility that is part of Berkshire’s energy division.

In 1996, CalEnergy acquired an electric utility in the United Kingdom and sent Abel to run it. He later moved to Des Moines, Berkshire’s energy division headquarters. Abel became president in 1998, CEO in 2008 and chairman in 2011, succeeding David Sokol.

Abel significantly grew the division and particularly expanded its portfolio of renewables.

During Saturday’s meeting, both Abel and Jain were on the stage with Buffett and Munger. Buffett called on Abel when questions were raised about Berkshire’s commitment to dealing with global climate change. Abel described how Berkshire has been a leader among utilities in endorsing global targets for reduced emissions and expanding its renewable operations.

Of course, the question of succession is largely moot as long as Buffett remains chair and CEO, and he showed little sign of slowing down Saturday. Exhibiting his typical energy and endurance, he held the stage during the meeting for nearly four hours.

Photos: 30 images of Warren Buffett through the years

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