Seed Corn Companies Try to Claw Back AltEn’s Sold-Off Assets in Two Lawsuits

Feb. 24, 2022, 4:30 p.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)

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Lawsuits are stacking up against AltEn. Five agriculture companies are suing the ethanol company that used treated seed corn to make ethanol.

They supplied AltEn with the pesticide-coated seed corn to turn into ethanol, which created tons of toxic byproduct and wastewater, leaving contamination concerns and a lingering stench near Mead, Nebraska.

The companies — Corteva, Sygenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, AgReliant, Beck’s Superior Hybrids and Winfield Solutions — have been voluntarily cleaning up the mess since last summer, and paying for it themselves.

In the two federal suits, they take issue with AltEn’s recent asset sales. Owners have sold off the neighboring feedlot and various equipment. The companies say those sales were intended to keep creditors away from money, and no proceeds have gone toward clean up.

“This is a pretty foreseeable problem, right?” University of Nebraska-Lincoln environmental law professor Anthony Schutz said. “Somebody who's facing big liability says, ‘Well, I can shield these assets by basically getting them into somebody else's hands.’”

One suit, led by Pioneer, argues those deals were fraudulent, and asks a judge to claw back the assets and prevent any future sales.

Overall, the companies say AltEn violated contracts by misrepresenting its ability to handle treated seed corn, not following regulations and leaving them to clean up the mess.

"They feel that they had an agreement, AltEn promised they would take care of their stuff,” Schutz said. “And this is a reflection that they don’t feel like the promises were fulfilled.”

The companies say they’ve spent millions to clean up the waste at AltEn. Now they’re suing to get their money back.

“The idea, I think, generally is that they've undertaken this liability on behalf of this company that they shouldn't have ever had to do,” Schutz said. “And now they've suffered damages as a result.”

Unlike the state’s suit, these two lawsuits name individuals like AltEn president Tanner Shaw, claiming he should be held personally responsible for costs.

“Environment controls were lacking or nonexistent at AltEn,” the suits read, and owners “abandoned” the mess. The seed companies have been cleaning up, but now they’re asking to be paid back.