Problems with a novel approach to ethanol production could be imperiling an aquifer.
WAHOO, Neb. (CN) — A lawsuit filed by the state of Nebraska against energy company AltEn LLC reveals how its novel approach to processing seed corn into ethanol led to an emerging environmental crisis centered in the small town of Mead.
The issue originates with how a facility operated before it was forced to shut down in February. Kansas-based AltEn is one of only two ethanol producers in the country who use discarded seed corn that is treated with pesticides and herbicides instead of normal field corn.
The attraction for AltEn was simple. The company could obtain the treated seed corn for free, as farmers and seed companies must otherwise pay to discard excess treated seed. The downside? Harmful chemicals do not dissipate during the distilling process.
Normally ethanol producers are left with a nutritious substance known as “distiller’s grain” that can be sold to livestock producers as feed. But AltEn’s byproduct is so toxic that even landfills will no longer accept it.
State regulators became aware of what AltEn was doing in 2015 but took no action until 2019, when the issues were too glaring to ignore. According to the state’s complaint, the state “did not know until 2018 that the byproducts from AltEn’s ethanol production could contain measurable residues of pesticides.”
The practice also runs contrary to what AltEn originally proposed when it received permits to operate, according to a statement from Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson.
For several years, Mead residents complained of problems at the plant, which produced up to 24 million gallons of ethanol each year. As first reported in The Guardian, residents experienced regular nose bleeds and sinus irritation, then noticed that colonies of bees were dying and pet dogs were taking ill with strange symptoms.
While those signs were troubling enough, Mead is situated on a ridge near the Platte River about halfway between Omaha and Lincoln and only 20 miles from a facility that supplies drinking water to many of the 750,000 residents of the state’s two biggest cities. The town sits atop the eastern edge of the massive Ogallala Aquifer, an underground freshwater ocean that is vital to the farm economies and well-being of people across the Great Plains.
At a press conference Monday morning, Jim Macy, the director of Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, sought to ease concerns that these waters were at risk.
“We’ve heard your concerns and we take those seriously,” Macy said. “Today AltEn is going to be held accountable.”
As recently as 2019, AltEn sold contaminated distiller’s grain as a “soil conditioner” for farms around Mead, according to the attorney general. Realizing the product contained pesticides, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture put a stop to the practice.
AltEn has since piled the waste on the ground outside its facility. According to the state’s lawsuit, in late February regulators estimated 84,000 tons of the toxic grain remained, in addition to three primary lagoons that are filled with wastewater. In the meantime, that waste is causing air, water and ground contamination.
Peterson said at the press conference the state gave AltEn until March 1 to remove the solid waste. As the company has not complied, the state sued.
Following a large spill of wastewater during a recent cold snap, concerns that drinking water supplies could be contaminated spiked. A frozen pipe on a 4 million-gallon digester burst, causing a spill of cow manure four miles long and other possible environmental hazards.
The state insists that drinking water is safe, but the allegations listed in the sprawling 97-page complaint are troubling.
Among them is that “AltEn’s processed wastewater and distiller’s grain are green in color unlike a normal ethanol plant,” and that samples taken from wastewater lagoons and a nearby creek sometimes showed levels of pesticides that were several thousand magnitudes higher than what are considered safe levels.
At Monday’s press conference, Macy said a state monitoring well shows safe levels of chemicals for human consumption. AltEn had ceased testing at its own monitoring wells.
In a statement, AltEn said it is continuing efforts to bring the facility into compliance.
“AltEn has been taking all measures on an ongoing basis to contain and clean up the accidental spill caused by the failed seal due to freezing temperatures, and those efforts have been successful to date. AltEn is working on steps to address clean up issues on the property and those have been ongoing.”
At the state’s press conference, Governor Pete Ricketts sought to reassure citizens that AltEn does not represent the norm for ethanol operations in the state.
“This does not represent the ethanol industry in the state of Nebraska,” Ricketts said, noting the importance of ethanol to the state economy and corn producers.
According to state figures, there are currently 25 ethanol plants in Nebraska, with a combined capacity to produce 2.5 billion gallons of the sometimes controversial biofuel annually. This makes Nebraska the second leading producer of ethanol in the United States.
The lawsuit, filed in Saunders County District Court, includes claims of violations of the Nebraska Environmental Protection Act and the Integrated Solid Waste Management Act. The state wants the court to order AltEn to clean up the site and seeks penalties of up to $10,000 per day, per violation. With 18 causes of action that span multiple years, the court will have discretion to levy a hefty judgment.