The Different Ideas on How to Clean Up AltEn, and What’s at Stake

March 18, 2022, 5 a.m. ·

Several rows of people in chairs, some wearing masks, with a wall and a stained glass window behind them.
Concerned Nebraskans gathered for a town hall in April 2021, in Mead, Nebraska, where pollution from the AltEn ethanol plant has raised questions from the community, and from people who live outside Mead. (Photo by Gabriella Parsons, Nebraska Public Media Labs)

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People gathered at the Mead Covenant Church on the east edge of town last year on an April evening to talk about AltEn.

Mead residents had long been raising alarm bells about the now shuttered plant. It was using pesticide-coated seed corn to make ethanol, producing a rotten stench and piles of toxic waste in the process. Residents were living with swollen eyes, frequent nosebleeds and congestion.

But no one was listening. Nebraska’s Department of Environment and Energy hadn’t even shown up to a meeting with Mead residents like Curtis Pearson.

“We tried to have a meeting with NDEE, and they didn’t even show up,” Pearson said at the April town hall. “So what does that make us residents feel like? Totally forgotten and left out.”

Most people were on the same page that night: AltEn needs to be held responsible and clean up its mess. The goal is the same today. But there are different opinions on how to get there, and just how far the impact of the mess should reach.

Finally listening

After feeling forgotten and left out for so long, some in Mead feel they’re finally being heard. For years, Jody Weible had been calling the state and federal government to complain about AltEn. Now, Nebraska’s Department of Environment and Energy is paying attention.

“We went from no communication at all, to now we are free to ask anything we want,” she said.

Weible is one of five Mead residents that meets with the department and its director Jim Macy to talk about cleaning up the mess at AltEn. They’re not public meetings.

Weible, Mead Covenant Pastor John Schnell and village chairman Bill Thorson say they work hard to keep the community updated and ask tough, researched questions.

Jody Weible holding a clear container in front of a house.
After the AltEn ethanol plant opened in 2015, Jody Weible says a strong smell started to waft through the village. "We didn't know they were using treated seed," she said. "We didn't know what was going on. Just that the smell was horrific." (Photo by Gabriella Parsons, Nebraska Public Media)

“We left the other day and I was pretty sure I had upset the director significantly with some of the things I said,” Schnell said. “I called him later and said ‘I hope you understand where it’s all coming from.’ He says, ‘No, I fully get it. It’s no problem, I want you guys to express yourself.’”

Others, who mostly live outside of Mead, want to be in the room, too.

Al Davis, a former state senator from the Panhandle who now lobbies for an environmental non-profit, has been paying close attention to AltEn for more than a year.

“I have a lot of respect for the pastor and Jody; my hat is off to her for all the work she's done,” Davis said. “But this is a public matter and filtering it through three individuals is not the appropriate solution.”

There’s respect and gratitude from both sides for everyone’s work to bring awareness to the issue. After all, they all want AltEn cleaned up and held accountable. But Mead residents argue making their meetings with NDEE public will slow progress and even raise tempers. After years of work on the issue, they say they’re the best people to advocate for their home.

Davis said director Jim Macy and his department should be able to handle the heat.

“I think take the gloves off, answer the questions, Mr. Macy,” Davis said. “Answer the questions and tell us what happened. This isn’t a ladies bridge game we’re talking about. It’s serious business.”

In a couple months, everyone should have the chance to comment in public hearings on a final plan for cleaning up AltEn and getting rid of the waste.

Who is accountable?

The different approaches were front and center recently at the Nebraska State Capitol. Davis and other activists support a bill from Senator Carol Blood, of Bellevue. Blood has proposed four bills regarding AltEn and is also running for governor.

The bill would establish a committee of state senators to oversee the cleanup process and investigate what allowed the mess to get so bad.

Mead residents, including Pastor Schnell, testified against the proposal.

“It’s hard for me to see how another bureaucratic unit is going to help the situation. We are finally seeing progress,” Schnell said. “Some people may not like the progress. I think some people just don’t like the fact that they don’t feel that they’re informed about the progress.”

Schnell and other residents are encouraged by the signs of progress in Mead: the smell is gone, and the birds are returning.

They urge people outside of Mead to test their drinking water and stay vigilant, but the residents want to work with the state to keep up momentum and stay focused on cleaning up their home and holding AltEn accountable.

“How can you point the finger toward NDEE and stop talking about AltEn, who really caused this whole problem?” Thorson said. “That got to me, when I see all these fingers being pointed, I’m like ‘Why is everyone forgetting about AltEn?’”

Others have a similar goal: They want Mead cleaned up and AltEn held responsible, too, but they worry about bigger problems that aren’t addressed by clean-smelling air and wildlife, like water contamination. They said the state government also deserves critique.

At the right of the picture, a woman stands behind a podium. Behind her, a group of people hold protest signs with words like "Stop" and "No More."
Senator Carol Blood speaks with a woman at a rally in the Nebraska State Capitol. The group protested the plan to cover the piles of toxic waste and called for more action regarding the AltEn ethanol plant. (Photo by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media News)

“It’s never fun to point out negative things that might have happened at the state level,” Blood said. “But if we can't point out where we haven't done a great job, how are we ever going to learn from our mistakes?”

Janece Mollhoff lives in Ashland downstream from Mead, and is worried her city’s drinking water could be contaminated by the 90,000 tons of toxic waste oozing into the soil.

To her, AltEn raises a red flag for all Nebraskans.

This really isn't just about Mead. It's about what does NDEE do to keep us safe,” Mollhoff said. “And that's really why I'm gonna continue to push.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the location of Mead. It is west of Omaha, not east. A previous version of this story also incorrectly stated that three Mead residents meet with Nebraska's Department of Environment and Energy. Five Mead residents regularly meet with the department.