The AltEn plant in the village of Mead has made ethanol from corn coated with pesticides for years. The results have been a disaster for residents and nearby farms.
The AltEn plant in the village of Mead has made ethanol from corn coated with pesticides for years. The results have been a disaster for residents and nearby farms.
June 15, 2021
“I have been coughing since 2018. It does not go away,” says Jody Weible over the phone from her home in Mead, Nebraska. “It’s like a never-ending sinus infection. I’ve been to a specialist . . . and he definitely thinks it’s environmental.” Weible believes her health issues—and those of many others nearby—are linked to an ethanol plant that is less than a mile from her home. The plant, owned by AltEn, is currently the site of an evolving environmental disaster.
While most ethanol is produced using corn, AltEn has been using corn seed that is coated in systemic pesticides since at least 2018. The fermentation and distillation process used to make ethanol has concentrated those chemicals so that the liquid and solid byproducts contain those pesticides at levels that, according to testing done by state agencies, far exceeded what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers safe.
Over the past three years, the company has spread those highly contaminated materials on fields and sold them to local farmers to do the same. At the same time, it violated numerous regulations intended to prevent runoff and air pollution at the site while accumulating more and more contaminated material. All the while, an affiliated company was raising livestock on the same property, in some cases adjacent to the contaminated substances. Then, in February, the situation seemed to literally explode, when a pipe on a holding tank burst, releasing 4 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the ground and local waterways.
As a result of repeated lack of compliance, Nebraska’s Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) temporarily shut the plant down and the state attorney general issued a lawsuit against AltEn on behalf of the NDEE. In May, Nebraska became the first state in the country to pass a law banning the use of treated seeds in ethanol production.
For Mead’s residents, however, the future remains unsettled. A local commission recommended permanently revoking the plant’s operating permit in May—and last week the Board for the village of Mead voted unanimously to revoke AltEn’s operating permit. But as of February, NDEE inspectors observed that 84,000 tons of solid byproduct was still on site, lagoon liners where the water is stored had leaks, and bags of contaminated substances were torn and leaking out in the open. Now, the EPA and the world’s largest seed and pesticide companies—with Bayer at the helm—are involved in the cleanup.
At an April town hall meeting, local Mead residents added their stories to Weible’s. They told of dogs becoming ill after wandering near fields where the ethanol byproduct had been spread; of whole families contracting asthma after moving to the area; and of dead bees, raccoons, and fish. Researchers like Judy Wu-Smart, an entomologist who studies bees, spoke about how her investigations into how pollinators have been affected are now evolving into a multi-institution research effort to examine the environmental and health impacts of the contamination. She said the group of scientists is just getting started.
The situation also exposed a broader problem. Nearly all of the conventional corn and soy in the country is grown from coated seeds, and it turns out that the country’s largest seed companies were sending excess seed to AltEn as a means of disposal. The EPA does not regulate that disposal since those seeds are not covered under national pesticide laws, which only apply to chemicals sprayed on fields.
“While the facility has discontinued the practice, there still continues to be a need to dispose of surplus outdated and pesticide-treated seeds,” Wu-Smart said during the town hall meeting. “Where is it going to go now? There are national implications to what’s happening in Nebraska right now.”
John Hansen is the president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, which is based in Lincoln, about 45 minutes south of Mead. He is a huge proponent of ethanol as a clean energy source and was at the 2007 grand opening event at the original plant, owned by E3 biofuels.
E3’s proposed closed-loop system, which used animal waste to power ethanol production, seemed like a big step forward for the industry, and it was exciting to Hansen and others in the area. “It was the new bright idea . . . where you’re producing feedstocks that can be used for the feed, and the cattle are producing the methane, and the methane is powering the plant,” he said. “Everybody was thinking, ‘Well, this is interesting technology, we hope this works.’”
However, the company declared bankruptcy at the end of 2007. It was later sold to a new entity and began operating as AltEn in 2015. At some point after that, AltEn switched from processing basic field corn to using treated seeds to produce ethanol; some reports put the date at as far back as 2015. According to agency documents, NDDE investigators noted the use of treated seed (as well as soda, beer, and industrial starch) during a 2018 inspection. From that date forward, the NDEE conducted frequent inspections and found ongoing violations. The company repeatedly failed to comply with instructions to fix various issues. The company did not respond to requests for interviews or comment for this article.
The biggest question centered on a solid byproduct of the production process. After ethanol is made from field corn, the remains are called distiller’s grain or “wet cake,” and it typically gets sold as animal feed. But federal law does not allow the wet cake to be sold as feed if it’s made from treated seed because of potential pesticide concentrations.
Rather than feed, AltEn sold the byproduct to at least seven farmers as a soil amendment. “That’s always the assumption, that these are the smart guys who know what they’re doing, and this is going to be really good for your soil and it’s relatively cheap,” Hansen said. But in AltEn’s application to register the wet cake as a soil conditioner with the Nebraska Department of Agriculture (NDA), it did not mention the use of treated seed. And when NDA and NDEE began testing the wet cake, both found levels of insecticides called neonicotinoids at staggering levels.
Neonicotinoids like clothianidin and imidacloprid are commonly used to coat seeds and are notoriously deadly for pollinators; the most commonly used are banned in Europe based on their documented impacts on pollinators and ecosystems. The NDA determined that if the wet cake was applied to fields at typical rates, the concentration of clothianidin found in one test would be 85 times higher than maximum rates allowed by EPA.
As a result, in May 2019, the agency ordered AltEn to stop using and selling the material as a soil amendment. But for at least a year after that, reporters at the Lincoln Journal Star found that the company continued to solicit more treated seed for processing with no clear outlet for disposing of the waste, leading to the subsequent pile-up. “It doesn’t appear that they ever did have a viable plan for dealing with the byproduct, and you’re concentrating all of these neonicotinoid treatments into such a confined area. Of course your concentration level has to just keep getting higher and higher and higher,” Hansen said.
AltEn sent some of its waste to the nearby Butler County Landfill. A spokesperson at the landfill confirmed it received waste in 2020 but would not disclose how much. She confirmed that it was dealt with as “non-hazardous waste,” a designation determined by the generator of the waste and approved by the landfill and that it was “disposed of like all other municipal solid wastes— mixed in with regular trash, packed, and covered.” An EPA spokesperson said that if the byproduct met the definition of “hazardous waste” under federal law, it would be subject to strict disposal regulations, but confirmed that the company getting rid of the waste is left to make that determination on its own.
At the same time, liquid waste that contained elevated levels of neonicotinoids was accumulating on the property surrounding the AltEn plant in large lagoons and sprayed on farm fields. In an April 2019 test, the NDEE found clothianidin at 58,000 parts per billion (ppb), thiamethoxam at 35,000 ppb, and thiabendazole at over 8,000 ppb in one lagoon. In drinking water, state health agencies consider clothianidin levels of over 200 ppb to be unsafe. Studies show clothianidin can kill aquatic invertebrates at levels ranging from 2 to 1200 ppb. That September, the NDEE prohibited the company from applying the liquid to land. During an inspection in September 2020, however, NDEE regulators discovered that the company hadn‘t followed its order and had continued to spray the liquid on fields.
Toward the end of 2020, the situation caught the attention of the EPA. The agency’s officials sent letters to the NDEE expressing concern about the land applications; it could not conclude that discharging the water onto land or applying the soil amendment “would not result in unreasonable adverse effects on humans or the environment.”
Everything came to a head in early February of this year, when the frozen pipe burst. Four days after the spill, regulators estimated the flow of liquid at 10 gallons per minute and recorded that it had entered a ditch and traveled at least 3 miles. So far, nearby wells the NDEE has tested have not shown pesticide contamination, but the clean-up continues, and the long-term effects are unknown.
Now, at least six seed and chemical companies, including Syngenta, Corteva, and Bayer, are involved in cleaning up the site. According to recent NDEE documents, a Bayer employee has been updating the agency on the status of the cleanup. A spokesperson told Civil Eats that Bayer hired “an expert environmental remediation company to help AltEn address the February water release from an ethanol plant digester and manage stormwater and filtration of the wastewater on site.” She added, “Bayer is now part of a group of former customers of AltEn who will continue to work on addressing the current situation as well as the development of a thorough plan for the site. This work is supervised by the EPA and NDEE.” And last week, the group of companies applied to the Nebraska Voluntary Cleanup Program, which would give them more responsibility and control over the remediation process at AltEn, with oversight from NDEE.
There are also outstanding questions about how the cattle at the site have been affected by the situation, and if potential contamination could impact the safety of the meat. A new buyer is currently trying to buy the cattle company and residents want the sale delayed until testing is conducted. The NDA said testing the cattle did not fall under its jurisdiction. In a statement sent from Corteva, a spokesperson pointed to the fact that waste at the site from the different operations has been commingled. “Testing indicates that nutrients found in cattle manure have been found at the AltEn site, which limits wastewater treatment and disposal options,” the statement read.
The NDEE cited the pending litigation and declined to answer specific questions sent by Civil Eats, but the agency has been posting updates on the site clean-up to a page on its website, where on April 29 it said it was “discussing a longer-term commitment by the seed industry to fully address the environmental issues at the site.” The EPA spokesperson echoed that language and said that the federal agency is “providing assistance at the request of NDEE and is closely monitoring the situation at the facility.” As to the possibility of the site being placed on the federal Superfund list—which would give the EPA authority to clean up the site and to hold AltEn responsible for the costs of the cleanup—the spokesperson would only say that “all available options” are on the table.
Meanwhile, it’s not clear how much treated corn seed the pesticide companies were sending to AltEn, but there appear to be a number of factors that can transform the seeds from a valuable agricultural commodity into waste companies need to get rid of.
In an email statement Corteva wrote, “We work hard to make sure our supply very closely matches demand. . . . However, some excess treated seed products must be discarded because of returned seed that is damaged, seed that does not meet our strict quality specifications, or seed that has become nonviable.”
Wayne Buhler, a professor and pesticide safety extension specialist who created a resource page on the topic, said that in general, the amount of time it takes for a seed to become nonviable or for a chemical coating on a seed to break down depends on many factors, including storage temperatures, moisture levels, and exposure to sunlight.
Croplife America, the trade association that represents the country’s biggest pesticide companies, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Several independent pesticide experts told Civil Eats they did not have enough information on treated seed disposal to speak to the issue.
Syngenta sent a statement asserting it “is committed to proper stewardship for the safe use of treated seed” and referred Civil Eats to an online guide to “Seed Treatment Stewardship,” to which Corteva also referred. The guide includes a video instructing farmers on safe disposal, and it identifies the best option as planting the excess seed in an area not being used for crop production. If that’s not possible, the video recommends ethanol production as the next best option; another industry-supported site provides similar recommendations, including a list of ethanol plants. But the guide is for the companies’ farmer customers and does not provide any insight into what the companies themselves do with excess seed.
A spokesperson for the EPA said that the agency does not have regulations specifically for the disposal of seeds treated with pesticides and fungicides.
Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health is gearing up to look into the long-term effects of AltEn’s practices through a collaborative research effort. Wu-Smart, who directs the Bee Lab at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been studying the effects of neonicotinoids and other insecticides on bees since 2006. Her team began keeping bees in the area and noticed in 2017 that in one location only, near Mead, none survived.
In 2019, she shifted her research to investigating the “timing and duration” of the losses—36 hives so far—and has found that the losses were not consistent with effects from typical agricultural practices. Her team measured concentrations of the neonicotinoid clothianidin—which can begin impairing bees’ ability to function normally at exposure levels as low as 40 to 50 parts per billion—in milkweed leaves in the area at 5,000 ppb.
“I suspect that the bees are dying from systemic pesticide pollution. . . . Systemic pesticides like neonicotinoids and several kinds of fungicides can move from the water and soil into plants,” she explained. “So, systemic pesticides can be expressed in the leaves, the nectar, and the pollen, where then wildlife become exposed.”
Wu-Smart is now monitoring several regions as part of the larger research efforts around environmental impact. She will be sampling field vegetation, bee-collected pollen, and surface water run-off, while other researchers are conducting surveys of aquatic insects, amphibians, and bird populations and reproductive capacity.
Of course, Mead’s residents are most concerned about their families’ health. Part of the initial study plan is to collect air samples near the wet cake piles to measure what is in the air that people like Jody Weible have been breathing.
At April’s town hall meeting, another doctor said that a comprehensive study on community exposure that will involve medical records, as well as blood and urine samples, is being planned. But studies like that take years.
In the meantime, Weible is busy circulating a petition calling for the town to officially revoke AltEn’s permit to operate, while calling and writing to local agencies and officials, keeping up the noise about what people in the community are experiencing. At the meeting, Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and founder of the Bold Alliance, expressed her frustration about a commonly held concern: that AltEn could walk away from the mess it’s made and leave thousands of Nebraskans living with the consequences.
That day, Kleeb asked the room, with frustration audible in her voice: “How many folks in the room know somebody who’s sick?” Several hands went up.
“If the bees are dying, that clearly means that health impacts are happening,” she added. “I’m happy that [Governor] Ricketts and the attorney general filed the lawsuit, but now what? Our government should be doing something. We don’t need a 10-year study to tell us that people are sick.”
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