At Town Hall, Mead Residents Voice Concerns Over AltEn Pollution

April 13, 2021, 6:02 p.m. ·

Several rows of people in chairs, some wearing masks, with a wall and a stained glass window behind them.
Concerned Nebraskans gathered for a town hall in April 2021, in Mead, Nebraska, where pollution from the AltEn ethanol plant has raised questions from the community, and from people who live outside Mead. (Photo by Gabriella Parsons, Nebraska Public Media Labs)

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On Monday, thirteen grassroots groups from across Nebraska — including Bold Nebraska, the Nebraska Sierra Club, and the Nebraska Wildlife Federation — sponsored a town hall in the village of Mead addressing possible impacts of pollution caused by the AltEn ethanol plant. With the plant shuttered by the state, community members said they’re looking for next steps to protect their health and the environment, but found more questions than answers.

Of the roughly 75 people attended the meeting, about half were residents of Mead or nearby. Speakers included local advocates, environmental researchers from the University of Nebraska and Creighton University, and a lawyer.

The team summarized what they could about the history of the AltEn plant and what’s known about its practices, but had less to share about what the plant’s saga means for Mead’s residents, which mostly remains unknown at this time.

For many residents in attendance, those knowledge gaps only highlighted how much still needs urgent investigation. Several expressed frustration over a lack of "real answers" around what risk AltEn's actions potentially pose to their health and the environment. Others described illnesses that they worry are tied to pollution by the plant.

Jody Weible, a panelist and longtime resident of Mead is hoping those experiences will spurn a community watchdog group.

“I want to see the town come together to fight this … because now everybody is aware that it’s there,” said “I hope that we can get enough information out there that we have a direction to go to fight.”

AltEn’s use of pesticide-treated seed corn led to years of environmental violations before the state filed a lawsuit against the company in March, which mostly focuses on how the plant handled solid and liquid toxic byproduct leftover from the ethanol production process.

That material is densely contaminated with several different pesticides and fungicides including neonicotinoids, a class of potent pesticides that is known to move deftly through water, soil, and vegetation.

Another major concern within the community is how — and when — thousands of tons of pesticide-contaminated waste on AltEn’s property will be cleaned up.

And who will ultimately foot that bill?

“From the very beginning, I knew this was not gonna work,” said nearby farmer Jim Jonas as he headed into the event. He lives a few miles from the plant and says he’s smelled its infamous scent for years. Now he’s curious what happens next.

“My opinion is that they’ll file bankruptcy and it’ll be on the taxpayers to clean it up.”

Former state senator Al Davis, who moderated the event, urged attendees to call their local, state, and federal representatives with their concerns about cleanup. He and other grassroots organizations are also hoping residents will push the Legislature to fund a study into possible migration of chemicals and how to stop it.

He added community organizing can turn the heads of elected leaders, citing years of activism against the Keystone XL pipeline that led to President Biden cancelling the project.

“No matter how you feel about the Keystone Pipeline, it was successful and that’s the way you get it done, and that’s the way you’re going to get it cleaned up here,” he said. “The squeaky wheel always gets the grease.”

Lawyer Dave Domina of Omaha agreed, adding there isn’t enough information to address all of residents’ concerns at this time. But he says people can still take action to protect themselves — and future generations — from any health complications.

“Don’t wait for somebody to test your wells … don’t wait for somebody from the government to tell you to put a filter on your well,” he explained. The second best move, he says, is to identify “the next substance we’re not regulating.”

“A lesson that should come out of this is to help every problem and prevent the next ones. Stay on it, stay on it.”

After the event ended, farmer Jim Jonas said he enjoyed the conversation, but it didn’t quite satisfy his curiosity. He doesn’t know how the situation will be resolved, but it did open his eyes to those missing from the town hall.

Several community members expressed frustration that representatives from AltEn were not present either, though they were not invited and did not respond to a request for comment. Representatives from NDEE were also absent.

Jonas wanted to at least see more members from the Saunders County Board, of which only one was present for part of the meeting.

“This is a start, but … where’s our community leaders? That was a big thing … they should have been here,” he sighed.

“This is going to involve more people and more communities, so it’s a big deal … where’s our state representatives?”