Spring Rains Complicate Concerns Around Ethanol Plant Pollution in Mead

March 19, 2021, 1:18 p.m. ·

(Photo by Gabriella Parsons, NET News)

The Alt En ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska has made headlines for using seed corn coated with pesticides. Now the company is being sued by the state for improperly storing, dumping, and later spilling the toxic waste leftover from that process.

With spring rain hitting the area over the past week, some say there are added concerns about contaminants spreading farther from the plant.

Last weekend’s weather prompted a complaint by the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy that the facility needed to install stormwater control to prevent contaminated liquid from running off the property.

NDEE regulators visited the facility over the weekend and noted at least one berm on the company’s property did breach, causing a large puddle of runoff to pool next to a roadway. The company patched the small structure and promised to pump the water into a lagoon. Earlier this week, much of that liquid remained.

A Wednesday site visit by a program specialist with NDEE’s Wastewater NPDES Compliance Unit noted there was no current evidence of berms overflowing or leaking, but “that being said, I did observe lots of water behind them.”

Residents of the town have expressed concerns that the facility’s actions — and any potential flooding — could impact their local drinking water. On Thursday evening, NDEE published the results of six public well water tests in the area conducted in the first week of March, including two belonging to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Eastern Nebraska Research Center (ENREC), two at the Nebraska National Guard’s training camp, and two owned by the village of Mead.

None of the chemicals previously connected to the plant’s pollution were detected. In a statement, NDEE officials wrote more results from other wells and soil samples are expected in coming days.

Local creeks and ditches face different risks in coming weeks.

"The rain [has] dumped a lot of water in the area, and that has led to pools of water, perhaps water lagoons, and certainly water running off the piles of stored materials there,” said Eleanor Rogan, chair of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Department of Environmental, Agricultural & Occupational Health at the College of Public Health.

Her team will be researching possible impacts of the contamination on local water quality and wildlife.

“And so that led this water to stream into nearby creeks and ditches and roadways, and other low places where it can travel further.”

While Rogan says her team was already planning to take samples from a broad area around the plant, recent rains will likely expand the area of study further. But she says more testing is needed before jumping to conclusions about impacts to the area.

“We want to gather information that will tell us how far and where potential contamination has traveled,” she said. “People have certainly told me things, but that's not quite the same as actually having the data.”

That work by the UNMC team will begin soon, while scientists from the UNL Bee Lab collected samples from culverts around the plant this week that will be tested for pesticides.

A recent toxic waste spill at the plant makes things more complicated, and is expected to contribute to chemical levels in nearby waterways. NDEE released its official report on the spill Thursday evening, which showed significant levels of pesticides and fungicides in the waste liquid sampled at several nearby locations during the discharge event. Regulators wrote:

"The level of pesticides found in the samples indicates that the spill poses a risk to human health and the environment."

You can read all public documents regarding the Alt En plant, including those referenced in this story, on NDEE's document portal by searching the facility's ID number: 84069.