WAHOO — Saunders County residents will have to wait to get answers about what’s being done to mitigate an ongoing environmental calamity originating from a troubled ethanol plant near the village of Mead.
Earlier this week, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy turned down the county’s invitation to take part in a March 1 town hall at the high school gym, County Attorney Joe Dobesh told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
“This is extremely disappointing,” Dobesh said. “What our community needs now, more than ever, is information. They need to know accurate details of what is happening, what the risks are, and what the state is planning to do.”
Saunders County officials say they have been working with the state for more than two years to address environmental concerns stemming from AltEn, which uses seed coated with pesticides rather than harvested grain in its ethanol production.
Those efforts haven’t amounted to much until recently, Dobesh said, as state statutes governing environmental issues in Nebraska are “antiquated.”
The county had set the special meeting to discuss AltEn weeks before a frozen pipe burst on a 4 million-gallon tank at the facility Feb. 12, releasing a combination of thin stillage and cow manure into drainage ditches running from the property.
Likely to be contaminated with pesticides, the waste traveled more than 4 miles from the plant, crossing through the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center’s property about a mile to the south, but stopping short of the Platte River.
The Department of Environment and Energy ordered AltEn to contain the spill to its present location and to remove the waste from the ditches and waterways.
Earlier this year, the department ordered the company to properly dispose of its byproduct, which was found to have unsafe levels of neonicotinoids, a pesticide common in seed treatments, from its property.
And on Feb. 4, state regulators ordered the plant to cease making ethanol until it disposed of excess, contaminated wastewater and repaired damaged lagoons at the facility.
On Tuesday, Dobesh told supervisors state officials didn't give a reason for declining to take part in next week's meeting.
"I reiterated to them multiple times that we would structure the meeting in any way they preferred, but they declined our invitation," Dobesh said.
Jim Macy, head of the state environment department, is set to discuss AltEn with members of the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee on Thursday afternoon.
Last week, the committee sent a bill (LB507) from Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard, who represents Saunders County in the Legislature, to the floor. The bill would prohibit ethanol companies in Nebraska from using treated seed.
The meeting between Macy and the committee is not open to the public.
Concerns about the water
Although the recent spill from a digester tank has solidified citizens’ support for state regulators and local officeholders to take action against AltEn, Dobesh said the problems created by the ethanol plant may be more serious.
“Today, standing before you, I cannot tell you that every family in our community has clean water to drink and every farmer’s field is not contaminated,” Dobesh told the county board Tuesday.
Records maintained by the Department of Environment and Energy show a monitoring well near a wastewater lagoon contained measurable amounts of thiamethoxam, a neonicotinoid found in Syngenta AG’s Cruiser product, at roughly 30 feet deep.
Groundwater typically exists at depths of 50 feet, although that can differ depending on the geography of the state.
The same pesticide was found in high concentrations in both the soil amendment AltEn had been providing to local farmers, as well as in samples from the lagoon itself, according to state regulators.
Shannon Bartelt-Hunt, the chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the sample indicates the pesticide may already be leaching into groundwater.
“It’s going to move vertically through the soil, and once it hits the water table or the groundwater, then it can move horizontally,” she said.
Contaminant transport into groundwater is a slow process and may not be apparent in the environment for years, Bartelt-Hunt added, but the magnitude of AltEn’s situation has raised concerns.
Samples drawn from the ethanol plant’s lagoons showed thiamethoxam at 24,000 parts per billion and clothianidin, another neonicotinoid, at 31,000 parts per billion, levels thousands of times those deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.
A tear in the lining of the lagoon — evident by the blisters or “whales” that have emerged above the surface of the water, as recorded by the Department of Environment and Energy — would allow the contaminated water to access the soil below.
Bartelt-Hunt said the weight of the contaminated water would push it further into the ground until it reaches the aquifer, and with neonicotinoids being water-soluble, they would dissolve and exist in the groundwater, moving wherever it did.
But there is little data to know the situation as it stands now, she added.
“There’s monitoring data from the wastewater lagoon, from the solid material, and the groundwater monitoring that has started in wells adjacent to the lagoon,” Bartelt-Hunt said. “But because there’s really no environmental data, we don’t know what the concentrations in the soil might be."
Wetlands and environmental specialists with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission have also started raising concerns about the unique terrain and agricultural practices in Saunders County and how they may hasten how pesticides contaminate groundwater.
A large swath of Saunders County rests on an ancient channel of the Platte River called the Todd Valley, situated to the west of the existing river.
The former riverbed is dotted with playa wetlands, low-lying areas created by wind blowing fine, silty soil on top of a clay layer formed by the movement of water thousands of years ago.
The clay layer of the playa wetlands prevents water from reaching the sandy soil deeper underground.
But the installation of drainage wells, tiles that help water run off to another area, or pipes that directly penetrate the clay layer and allow water to flow toward the water table, are present in many of the playa wetlands.
In an email to the Department of Environment and Energy on Tuesday, Game and Parks noted those drainage wells could make it easier for pesticide-contaminated water to leach into groundwater.
“Wherever drainage wells are located could be a point where surface waters would move directly down to groundwater,” wrote environmental analyst Jessica Tapp. “We believe that there is real potential for pesticides to reach our groundwater through these ag drainage wells.”
Game and Parks said it was also keeping an eye on Silver Creek, which empties into the Memphis Lake State Recreational Area south and east of the UNL research center.
A weir structure on Silver Creek, which flows several miles to the west of Mead and AltEn, diverts water into a wetlands area adjacent to the lake.
Tapp said while the weir is not currently directing water into the wetlands, Game and Parks is concerned that runoff has been affecting the water quality and wildlife in the area since AltEn began its operations more than five years ago.
At the end of Tuesday's discussion, the Saunders County Board approved an emergency declaration to begin what it described as a coordinated response in cleaning up the facility.
The declaration will allow the county to spend emergency funds, invoke mutual aid and apply for emergency assistance from the state.
Dobesh said the county was requesting more information from the Department of Environment and Energy about potential contamination, and would work to provide regular updates to the public.
County officials had earlier been prevented from discussing the situation, Dobesh explained, because it was preparing litigation to revoke AltEn’s soil-conditioner label.
Dobesh urged anyone with information about piles of the soil conditioner, or potential water contamination issues, to come forward so the county can begin to understand the scale of the problem.
Supervisor Frank Albrecht said without officials from the department responsible for regulating environmental issues in the state present, residents of Mead and the surrounding area wouldn't be able to obtain any answers about the ongoing situation at AltEn.
"We need players there," Albrecht said. "NDEE is the prime person that needs to be there explaining."
In a statement, the department said it was "devoting its full resources to its emergency response" to the Feb. 12 spill and plans to meet with the Saunders County Board "after the initial emergency phase has passed."
"The agency will continue to provide updates as cleanup continues," the department added.
Responding to a recommendation from Dobesh that the board suspend the hearing "until NDEE is ready to present their plan to the public," Supervisor Craig Breunig asked the county attorney if he believed that would happen.
"It has to," Dobesh said.