AltEn and Mead, One Year After the State Sued the Ethanol Plant

1. März 2022 05:00 ·

Large piles of gray dirt sit next to two long white sheds, underneath a blue sky.
The AltEn facility outside of Mead, Nebraska. While it was in production, the ethanol plant created these piles of toxic waste as well as millions of gallons of wastewater. (Photo by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media News)

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John Schnell, a pastor at Mead Covenant Church, didn’t fill his bird feeder for eight months. Didn’t need to – there hadn’t been birds in Mead for nearly two years. But now the birds are back.

Jody Weible’s back to re-filling her bird feeder, too. And swatting away mosquitos again. The village of Mead had to spray for the pests last summer, after two years of having no need.

She swears it’s because AltEn, an ethanol plant about two miles from her house, has been shuttered for the past year.

For about six years the plant used pesticide-treated seed corn to make ethanol, producing tons of toxic byproduct and millions of gallons of wastewater along the way.

The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy cited the company as many as ten times for not following regulations before it shut down the plant in February 2021. Two days later, a pipe burst and millions of gallons of wastewater gushed into nearby areas.

Two weeks later, the state attorney general sued the company in a 98-page document.

Ken Winston is a practicing attorney and organizer for the Sierra Club, an environmental non-profit that’s been lobbying lawmakers for action on the plant. He asks “What took so long?”

It could have been a much shorter lawsuit if they'd filed something in 2018, or 2019,” Winston said. “Rather than having it wait until things were a disaster.”

In the company’s response to the lawsuit, its lawyers use the word “deny” nearly 500 times.

A year later, that’s most of the public movement in the case, aside from some routine paperwork.

The Nebraska attorney general and AltEn’s lawyers both declined to comment. They’ve said they’re working together on discovery, the legal process where both sides consult on the evidence and the witnesses that could come forward in a potential trial.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln environmental law professor Anthony Schutz said discovery is a long process and a quiet period isn’t uncommon.

Bankruptcy

The big concern about a slow-going lawsuit is what happens if the company declares bankruptcy.

It gets pretty complicated pretty fast.” Schutz said. “I would suspect AltEn is thinly capitalized with substantial amounts of debt. So the prospect of financial recovery from an entity like this is relatively low.”

It would be bad news for the state. And for the agriculture companies that recently sued AltEn in a pair of federal lawsuits.

For years Sygenta, Corteva and other companies sent AltEn the pesticide-coated seed corn to make into ethanol. Now they’ve been cleaning up the mess for months, and paying for it themselves. In the suits, they say the ethanol plant violated contracts and they want their money back.

But despite all the alleged violations, the state and the seed companies could be pretty far back in the line to get paid by AltEn.

“They sort of sit after any banks or anybody else who's got prior claims,” Schutz said. “They would be the ones that would get paid, even if everything got sort of crammed down and frozen.”

Clean up

When the seed companies aren’t filing lawsuits, they’ve been cleaning up the site.

In its lawsuit, Sygenta said there was enough solid waste to fill 76 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The group consolidated that into a single pile, and they recently covered that with a cement-like shell. It’s supposed to keep the wind from stirring up the toxins, and prevent streams of contaminated water running off the pile every time it rains.

They’ve also tried to secure the 180 million gallons of wastewater against any future spills, like the one in February 2021 and then a second in September.

A final plan on what’s needed to clean up the site is expected within the coming months. It could take five years or more to carry out the plan, Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy Director Jim Macy said in a recent legislative hearing for a bill that would establish an oversight committee for the process.

Senator Carol Blood, who represents Bellevue in the unicameral and is running for governor, proposed the bill and three others regarding AltEn and Mead. She’s been working with Winston and former state senator Al Davis of the Sierra Club to raise awareness and hold parties accountable for their roles in the disaster.

“I don’t believe the Legislature has focused enough attention on the failures of the Department of Environment that allowed AltEn to take place,” Blood said at the legislative hearing.

Investigating contamination

A team of university researchers have also been working near the site. The Nebraska scientists have been investigating how the contamination from the solid waste and wastewater spills may impact water quality and the health of humans, animals and insects.

The team is about to release preliminary reports on what they’ve found in a year of research, and surveys asking about health effects on adults went out to about a thousand households in February. Eleanor Rogan, who’s leading the team and is a professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said responses are coming in.

But preliminary reports might be all the public ever hears from the university team. Without new funding, they only have enough money to last until June.

“We will essentially be forced to close shop because we will not have resources to do this,” Dr. Ali Khan said. He advises the researchers as dean of UNMC’s college of public health.

“That has been extremely disappointing. That nowhere from the Legislature, the state executive agencies has been willing to provide money to support the health of the people in Mead.”

A railroad track runs down the center of the picture, with a water tower standing against a blue sky to the right. The bright shining sun is in the upper left hand corner of the picture.
Some Mead residents have been fighting for action on AltEn for years. They say they're seeing signs of progress. (Photo by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media News)

Weible said she knows the state’s response to the environmental disaster hasn’t been perfect. She told them as much in calls back in 2018, leading all the way up to when the AG slapped the company with a lawsuit.

I called up there often enough that they answered the phone: ‘Hi, Jody.’”

But she’s been feeling better over the past year. The wetcake stench in Mead is gone, and wildlife is returning. It doesn’t fix the effects of contamination or undo the past, but it feels like progress.

I can wish what everybody thinks: It should have been cleaned up by now,” Bill Thorson, head of Mead’s village board, said. “But we all know that's not possible. It took them nine years to cause the mess. And it's usually a lot easier and faster to cause a mess than it is to clean the mess up.”