Nebraska Public Media Documentary Shares The Story of Troubled AltEn Ethanol Plant

Aug. 4, 2021, 11 a.m. ·

Documentary Focuses on Mead, Nebraska's Fight For Its Future
(Graphic by Lisa Craig, Nebraska Public Media)

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An investigative radio documentary produced by Nebraska Public Media News reveals how residents of one community are putting up a big fight to save their tiny village from pollution. “The Smell of Money: Mead, Nebraska’s Fight for Its Future” airs on radio at 7 p.m. CT, Wednesday, Aug. 4 and 9 a.m. CT, Friday, Aug. 6. Nebraska Public Media Morning Edition host Jackie Ourada discusses the documentary with reporter Christina Stella.

JACKIE OURADA, Nebraska Public Media: In March, the state of Nebraska sued an ethanol plant in the eastern village of Mead. The lawsuit came after years of the AltEn ethanol plant polluting the town. Nebraska Public Media's Christina Stella has been covering the story. Can you tell us a little bit about AltEn and what makes it different?

CHRISTINA STELLA, Nebraska Public Media: Ethanol is usually made from field corn. But AltEn had the idea that instead of using that, they wanted to use the seeds that the farmers plant instead. But there was this one big fatal flaw with that plan. And that is that seed corn comes treated with a layer of pesticides. And so what became clear in the years after their opening is that when you take that stuff, and you use it to make ethanol, and you put it through the fermentation process, the byproduct that you get on the other side -- so think of a wet corn mash, and then just, like, your standard kind of liquid waste -- those were highly contaminated with several different pesticides. And so that contaminated waste really started to pose a lot of environmental problems for the village of Mead, and really beyond in Saunders County.

JACKIE OURADA: So when did the people of Mead notice something was different or wrong?

CHRISTINA STELLA: People started noticing this really strong smell coming from the plant. I'm going to bring in resident Jody Weible to describe it:

JODY WEIBLE: Dead, rotten, and acidic, all in one. It's -- I've never smelled anything like it.

CHRISTINA STELLA: For the people who are living in Mead, they could literally smell that there was something different about the way AltEn was handling its waste.

JACKIE OURADA: But you note in the documentary that eventually the smell was actually the least of Mead's problems?

CHRISTINA STELLA: AltEn's initial plan for its waste was to compost it and spread it on local crops as a soil conditioner. And once it started to do that, people were noticing other problems. So I'm going to introduce you to Paula Dyas, she lives a couple of miles outside of town. And she found that when AltEn spread their waste on a field neighboring her house, her dogs actually ended up getting into that material and eating some of it and became really sick:

PAULA DYAS: And I was really worried that you know that we may actually lose her, because we didn't know what was in the product that was making her sick.

CHRISTINA STELLA: It wasn't just dogs getting sick. People in the area started to report these really strange health issues. And while residents couldn't prove that these problems were because of AltEn that really concerned them. And so they started to complain to the state.

JACKIE OURADA: Can you tell us more about the state's response?

CHRISTINA STELLA: The state has received a lot of complaints about AltEn over the years. And I've looked through quite a few of them. And there were a couple of different common things that people would hear, including that Nebraska's environmental laws don't necessarily regulate odors, which is true, or that they were looking into the concerns or that AltEn had permits to do what they were doing. It just seems like people felt like the state was not really prepared to respond to the types of complaints that they were receiving. Partly just because this was such a novel situation for the Department of Environment and Energy, and the Department of Agriculture to really respond to.

JACKIE OURADA: The state ordered AltEn to close in early February. What happened after that?

CHRISTINA STELLA: Remember that really cold polar vortex that hit Nebraska and Texas and sort of the middle part of the country in February? That was actually happening right around when the state ordered AltEn to shut down. A 4 million gallon waste tank at the plant burst open in the middle of the night, and that liquid waste just spills across the countryside. And it's sort of complicated the response that the state was already trying to execute on the previous years of violations and problems associated with AltEn. But just a few weeks later, the state announced a massive lawsuit against the plant. And a lot of people in Mead told me that they were really excited to see that because it felt like a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel. But there's still a lot that needs to be worked out in the meantime.

JACKIE OURADA: The residents you focus on in the documentary are pushing for AltEn to safely clean up its waste. What's happening now?

CHRISTINA STELLA: In June, the state announced that six of the companies that supplied seed corn to AltEn would join a voluntary cleanup fund. But there are still some questions, like where the waste will be taken to, how much is it going to cost to clean up and who is going to pay for any contamination that happened outside of the AltEn facility. And most importantly, what exactly are the impacts here? Judy Wu-Smart is an entomologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. And she told me that she's concerned about the long term impacts of mixing different chemicals together like insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides:

JUDY WU-SMART: They have this ability to enhance the toxicity or synergize other compounds and chemicals in a chemical mixture.

JACKIE OURADA: What could have been done differently in this situation?

CHRISTINA STELLA: The state has a lot of discretion over what types of action it's going to take against a company that is breaking rules. And really, the state tried for years to work with AltEn to get it to do the right thing. But the trouble with that approach, ultimately, was that the company just kept committing violation after violation after violation with no real significant improvement. Many of the residents that I've spoken with in my reporting have really just emphasized that they wanted the state to act sooner. This was something that we reached out to Governor Ricketts' office to discuss more, I want to share a little bit of what we received back in that statement. Quote, "The well being of the people of Mead and the surrounding area is of the utmost importance," and that the state has taken significant action to address AltEn.

JACKIE OURADA: So we can tune in tonight at 7pm or at 9am on Friday to hear Christina Stella's radio documentary, "The Smell of Money: Mead, Nebraska's Fight for Its Future."