The AltEn ethanol plant is shut down for the foreseeable future. But local, state and federal governments must continue to take every possible action to mitigate the environmental disaster created by the plant’s use of pesticide-treated seed corn to make alcohol.
The plant, which became the national dumping ground for treated seed, produced contaminated byproducts sold as distiller’s grain to area farmers and applied on area fields. After farm use was banned, some 84,000 tons of the distiller’s grain was found on the plant grounds.
The plant also produced wastewater, which has flowed into a drainage ditch four miles from the plant and overflowed the plant’s lagoon system.
That production won’t happen again. Last week, Gov. Pete Ricketts signed into law LB507, which carried an emergency clause that made it immediately effective. The new law prohibits ethanol producers from using treated seeds as a feedstock if the byproduct cannot be fed to livestock or applied to land.
And the plant that was shut down by the state in February will remain closed until its grounds and the polluted area can be cleaned up.
Next week, the Mead Planning Commission will either suspend or revoke the conditional use permit it granted AltEn in 2014.
Suspension of the permit would allow AltEn -- or a third party -- to continue to clean up the site, monitored by the state Department of Energy and Environment and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office has signed off on the suspension plan, which would make AltEn pay for some of the environmental remediation efforts, reducing or eliminating a potentially devastating financial burden on the nearby village of Mead.
As such, the suspension has merit, provided that the permit can be revoked if the company does not follow through, and that any agreement with the planning commission or state does not allow AltEn to withhold information about its past operations from the regulators and the public.
The suspension plan begins to address the next critical questions about the disaster that must be answered and acted upon: Who will do the cleanup, and how will it be paid for?
Representatives from Bayer, one of the companies that sent millions of pounds of discarded pesticide-coated seed to AltEn, are attempting to secure 35 to 40 acres of land near the facility that could be used to set up a tank farm to hold wastewater that AltEn is now treating under an agreement with the state.
That is a good first step in assigning the costs of the cleanup and responsibility for the cleanup to AltEn and the companies that supplied the pollutant. But the state should plan and prepare to find additional funding for the expensive, long -- but absolutely necessary -- cleanup.