Clean up of AltEn site enters new phase, waste could be headed to Omaha landfill

May 26, 2023, 9 a.m. ·

The AltEn plant in Mead, Nebraska with a dirt road in the foreground.
The AltEn ethanol plant opened in Mead, Nebraska in 2015 and closed in February of 2021. (Nebraska Public Media News file photo)

LINCOLN — Cleaning up a mountain of contaminated waste corn at the former AltEn ethanol plant has entered a new phase — one that might send another controversial cargo to an Omaha-area landfill.

Officials with NewFields, the company hired to lead the cleanup, announced plans this week for a pilot project to discover the best, and safest way, to dispose of 115,000 tons of pesticide-contaminated “wet cake” — the waste grain left after the ethanol distilling process. It’s a pile that covers 16 acres, or about 10 square city blocks.

The proposal involves mixing the wet cake with materials that reduces its moisture content, such as Portland cement or fly ash, and then wrapping it completely in plastic — like a burrito — to reduce dust and a putrid smell. Then, it would be transported to a landfill permitted to accept such waste.

Bill Butler, an Atlanta-based senior engineer/partner in NewFields, said that where the wet cake will be hauled has yet to be determined.

Bennington landfill is the closest

But he said that the Pheasant Point Landfill, operated by Waste Management, just outside of Omaha near Bennington, is the closest facility and one of those being considered.

“We’re still evaluating options for that,” Butler said. “We’ll have that soon and once we know, we’ll be communicating that.”

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, truckers hired by Waste Management began hauling away trash, pallets, biocharred grain and other debris left behind in huge storage barns abandoned when the AltEn plant shut down two years ago.

That waste is headed to the Pheasant Point Landfill — which is operated by Waste Management —  and will require 18-20 truckloads a day over five to six weeks.

Butler said that doesn’t ensure that Pheasant Point will be the destination for the thousands of truckloads of wet cake. Removal of the trash left behind is a separate contract, he said, adding that he will not have a timeline for removal of the wet cake until after the pilot project is completed.

But if the wet cake is hauled to Pheasant Point, it will be the second time in recent months that the Omaha-area landfill has received waste from an environmental calamity.

In February, the Examiner reported that thousands of cubic yards of oil-soak soil was hauled to the Pheasant Point Landfill from the site of a crude oil spill on the Keystone pipeline, just across the Nebraska border at Washington, Kansas. The revelation prompted concerns from the Douglas County Board.

Hopes for the pilot project

Bill Thorson, chairman of the Mead Village Board, said he doesn’t know where the wet cake will be hauled, but if he had to bet, he would bet it’s headed to Omaha.

Overall, Thorson said Thursday that he’s encouraged that those handling the clean up are listening to local concerns and progressing toward developing the best plan.

“We’re definitely hoping that the pilot project goes the way we’re thinking it will go so we can get rid of that stuff,” said the village board chairman.

Thorson said that other options, such as incinerating the wet cake on site or at a waste facility in Kimball, were rejected as impractical.

“We would all have liked to see it gone yesterday,” he said. “But I’d like to see them take the time to do it properly.”

Thorson is part of a group of community leaders who meet regularly with the AltEn Facility Response Group, a group of six seed corn companies who have hired NewFields and are financing the clean-up work. Butler did not have an estimated cost of the work done, but in the past it has been estimated at $23 million. 

He said that local residents, in recent briefings, have been assured that the clean-up work will include removal of any contaminated soil found underneath the piles of wet cake, which were covered with a plaster-like covering a year ago to prevent rains from washing away any pesticide residues.

The same goes, Thorson said, for any sludge beneath the huge, tarp-lined wastewater lagoons at the AltEn site, once the wastewater has been removed.

Butler, in an interview at the site Thursday, said plans for draining the wastewater lagoons — which once held 180 million gallons of polluted water — and what to do with any seed corn left at the site, have not yet been devised.

Still planning

“Right now, we’re still in the process of planning all of that out,” he said.

The AltEn facility drew national environmental concerns since it was revealed two years ago that the plant had, for years, been using seed corn coated in pesticides to produce ethanol.

Typical ethanol plants use harvested field corn, not pre-planted seed that is coated in hazardous chemicals to prevent pests from feeding on the seed or young corn plants.

The leftover “wet cake,” after being used for ethanol, began piling up around the AltEn plant after the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy halted the practice of spreading it on nearby farm fields and after a landfill in Butler County stopped accepting the waste grain.

Putrid smell

Around Mead, a farm town of about 626 people located 25 miles west of Omaha, one can still hear plenty of stories about the putrid, rotting flesh smell that emanated from the plant while it was operating. Some residents reported health impacts to them and their pets.

A year ago, test wells near the AltEn site showed some signs of pesticide contamination, as did tests of dust in homes in Mead.

The plant was closed two years ago after a spill of 4 million gallons of contaminated wastewater from the plant. Traces of pesticides were detected up to six miles away.

“It had a smell of its own,” said Arlene Janecek, as she ran up sales Thursday at the R&K Country Store, just down the road from AltEn.

“It gave me headaches,” Janecek said. “It wasn’t pretty.”

In an update this week, NewFields reported that it had treated 49.4 million gallons of lagoon water at a water treatment facility built at the AltEn site, and that 30.8 million gallons had been land-applied to local farmland as fertilizer through this spring.

No impact on drinking water

Thorson, as well as cleanup officials, said there has been no impacts on local drinking water traced to the AltEn plant.

Mead, the village board chairman said, is not “the next Flint, Michigan,” where the city’s drinking water was contaminated with lead.

Thorson, though, said he’d like to see a more extensive study of whether pesticide contamination detected around the AltEn facility originated from the plant, or is linked to regular farm practices in the area.

Last year, a task force of health and environmental researchers from the University of Nebraska, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Creighton University conducted a series of studies. But worries remain that the research might end after a $1 million allocation from the State Legislature runs out.

‘How much are they willing to spend?’

Former State Sen. Al Davis, coordinator of an AltEn watchdog group called the Perivallon Group and a lobbyist with the Sierra Club of Nebraska, said he’s glad some progress is being made at the plant.

He said the biggest question still hasn’t been answered: “What will be done with the wet cake?”

Davis also wondered: What is the plan for addressing farmland where the contaminated wet cake was land-applied years ago? Or cleaning up farm ponds that captured pesticide-laced runoff?

“They’ve spent $23 million so far, and that’s only scratching the surface,” he said. “How deep are the pockets of these seed companies? How much are they willing to spend to clean this up?”