Nebraska Scientists Team Up for 'Unprecedented' Study Into AltEn Pollution

April 7, 2021, 4:53 p.m. ·

Researchers from across the state are teaming up to study possible environmental and health impacts stemming from the AltEn ethanol plant's usage of pesticide treated seed corn. (Photo by Christina Stella, NET News)

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Community members around Mead, Nebraska heard more details this week on a sprawling University of Nebraska research effort taking hold in their town.

At a virtual town hall hosted by the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health, scientists from across Nebraska laid out their plans to study how pesticide and fungicide pollution by the AltEn ethanol plant may be impacting human health and the environment. The 10-year study will feature researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Creighton University. The team's areas of expertise vary widely, including public health, epidemiology, environmental engineering, natural resources, and entomology.

Judy Wu-Smart, an entomologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said researchers will focus their search on potential widespread contamination from neonicotinoids — known as “neonics” — in the area around the plant. “Neonics are a relatively newer class of insecticides chemically related to nicotine,” she explained.“They are water soluble and neurotoxins, and they're notable for their systemic action which allows the residues to move readily through the water, soil and vegetation.”

She added researchers will also be keeping an eye out for fungicides, which have already been detected in previous sampling of waste from the plant.

Since opening in 2015, AltEn made its ethanol from seed corn treated with several different agricultural chemicals — including neonicotinoids and fungicides — instead of commonly used field corn. Regulators with the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy ordered the plant to close in February after years of improperly handling solid and liquid toxic waste leftover from that process.

State regulators have estimated AltEn applied around 33,400 tons of pesticide-contaminated wetcake leftover from the ethanol production process to nearby land between 2018 and 2019, with more being stored onsite: in July of 2019, around 26,000 tons of wetcake was being stored on the property. Since then, that number has risen to over 84,000 tons.

The plant was also discharging its toxic wastewater locally until 2020: previous sampling of that liquid detected 13 different pesticides, some with over a thousand times the safety benchmark for daily food and water consumption. The company is currently storing around 175 million additional gallons of the wastewater in its three on-site lagoons.

Just days after the facility shut down in February, a 4-million gallon waste digester later spilled a potent mixture of manure and chemicals, further complicating the work that will be needed to understand possible short and long term chemical exposures across the area.

Researchers will soon begin collecting air, water, soil samples from around the area and will test several different kinds of wildlife for possible contamination including fish, livestock, and birds. Eleanor Rogan, chair of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Occupational Health says the community will play an important role in determining if there is any possible hazard to human health. The study will consider impacts over past and future years.

Starting in May, researchers will begin surveying residents on perceived health impacts of living close to the AltEn plant, and will later analyze blood and urine sampled from the community.

“We're also able to do a review of hospital records, so that we can look and see whether some adverse health effects have risen significantly in the last few years in the area, which would suggest that they might be related to contamination from the plant,” said Rogan. "We will be establishing a major medical registry for both adults and children so that you can get your name on a list and we'll check back with you periodically over, let's say, the next 10 years, and see whether there are any other health effects that start appearing later."

Community engagement lead Brian Grimms added the team is hoping residents will provide tips and feedback on where to look for possible contamination hotspots.

“We hope to learn a lot more from you as individuals,” he said, directly addressing the dozens of residents on the call. “Some of you have been living with this, you're living in it, you know a lot more than we do because you're in the community every single day. And we want to make sure that we are good partners with you.”

UNMC College of Public Health Dean Dr. Ali Khan said researchers are in communication with toxicologists from Bayer who have offered to provide information about their treated seed corn and set up a meeting with other major companies. He said representatives from AltEn offered to “discuss the issues.”

The project is expected to cost around $10 million over the next decade. When asked if they were aware of any comparable research with this size and scope, several on the team shook their heads. After a pause, one researcher commented the effort was "unprecedented".

The Claire M. Hubbard Foundation provided an initial $200,000 in funding for the project. Rogan said their team will pursue long term funding from the state legislature, the Nebraska Environmental Trust, and the National Institute of Health, and philanthropic donations.

Preliminary results of the study are expected in August. You can find more information about the research and donating here.