Researchers Say They've Gotten 'Radio Silence' from AltEn as They Research Contamination

Feb. 14, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

Piles of leftover waste from an ethanol plant in mounds with brown ground in front.
Unlike most other plants, AltEn used pesticide treated seed corn instead of harvested grain to produce its ethanol. Piles of leftover waste from that process are seen lining the property on March 9, 2021. Mead’s infamous scent ––which people describe as rotten, putrid, and rancid –– has been attributed to these mounds. (Photo by Gabriella Parsons, Nebraska Public Media Labs)

A team of university scientists has been researching contamination around the AltEn ethanol plant near Mead, Nebraska since last spring – without the assistance of the company that created the concern, according to the scientists. 

The researchers are investigating how tons of rotting waste outside the defunct ethanol plant may contaminate water quality and the health of humans, animals, insects and the environment. 

The waste, also known as wetcake, comes from the leftovers of the company turning pesticide-coated seed corn into ethanol. The wetcake's toxins leach into the ground, blow into the air and have spilled out of burst pipes and containment berms. 

‘Radio silence’

Ali Khan, who advises the researchers as the dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health, said there were initial offers from the ethanol company to meet and discuss the issues the research team would address.

“But since then it’s been radio silence,” he said. “We’ve never heard back from them again. It’s a disappointment. Especially since, as a university, we don’t come in with any agenda, other than the health of the community, the environment and trying to understand what happened.”

AltEn lawyer Stephen Mossman said the company has not received a formal, written request from UNMC to conduct tests or work on the plant’s site. And AltEn has allowed the state of Nebraska, its contractors and the seed companies that are cleaning up the facility onto the grounds. 

“AltEn is willing to grant UNMC access if that access is coordinated with the state of Nebraska and the response group,” Mossman said in a statement. He’s representing the ethanol company in a lawsuit filed by the state last spring. 

Khan said the college sent emails and will pursue access to the grounds.

Research status

It’s important for the researchers to be able to draw tests from the site because that’s the area where the contamination could be strongest, said Shannon Bartelt-Hunt, the department chair of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She’s looking into water and soil quality near AltEn. 

“The missing information is what’s happening at the source,” she said. “By not being able to sample on the property, we lose that piece of the puzzle with what’s happening over time.”

Scientists are preparing to release preliminary reports on what they’ve found so far in a year of research. Eleanor Rogan, a professor at UNMC and who leads the team, said surveys for perceived health effects on adult humans will be sent out to about a thousand different households this month. 

But money is another obstacle. Without funding from the legislature, state agencies or other sources, they only have enough money to continue until June. That could leave Nebraskans near the AltEn plant in the dark about the contamination.