The AltEn Ethanol plant near Mead shut down on Feb. 8, ceasing production after the state found three lagoons on the site were badly damaged and holding more wastewater than permitted.
The plant should remain shuttered for the foreseeable future, as the damaged lagoons are only the tip of the iceberg of potential environmental destruction created by the plant’s use of pesticide-treated seed corn to make ethanol.
As detailed by the Journal Star’s Chris Dunker in a series of articles, pesticide chemicals such as clothianidin were found in extremely high concentrations in the lagoons and the waterways off the property.
Even more damaging, the toxic pesticides were contained in soil conditioner AltEn sold to local farmers, who spread it on their fields, leading to “canary-in-the-coal-mine” deaths of raccoons and other small animals as well as bees, which are highly susceptible to the pesticides, at the nearby University of Nebraska-Lincoln research center.
The chemicals, of course, seep into groundwater and are found in rainwater runoff, that from the area around Mead runs into the Platte River, just above the wellfields that provide Lincoln’s drinking water.
After tests determined the area was laced with concentrations of pesticides that far exceeded rates deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture issued a “Stop-Use and Stop-Sale Order” on the conditioner in May 2019.
Soon thereafter, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy said the conditioner could no longer be applied to farm ground and is now considered a solid waste that must be disposed of at a permitted landfill.
But Kansas-based AltEn continued to collect the treated seed, entering into contracts with industry giants, like Bayer, Syngenta and Dow as well as more than 100 smaller companies, taking in 98% of the discarded seed in the country.
That turned the plant into what a Mead official rightfully called “a dump for seed corn companies,” with long rows of the brightly colored, chemically infused byproduct that can no longer be sold on the plant’s grounds.
Before it can reopen the plant, the state should require AltEn to present a plan of how it will safely dispose of the by-product, including an account of the landfills where it would be dumped.
The water pollution that has already occurred from the use of the soil conditioner and the leaking lagoons also should be thoroughly investigated and mitigation plans created before the plant is allowed to reopen.
While the investigations continue, the Legislature should take advantage of the shutdown and pass LB507, introduced by Sen. Bruce Bostelman, whose district includes Mead and the ethanol plant. This would prohibit the use of treated corn seed in fuel production if the byproduct is deemed unsafe for livestock consumption or land application.
That first-in-the-nation measure would effectively ban AltEn Ethanol from using the treated seed and stockpiling the byproduct on its property, thereby stopping any further environmental destruction.
Importantly, it would also prevent other plants in Nebraska from repeating the toxic action that endangered wildlife, the Mead community and the state’s most important natural resource, its water.