The Smell of Money: Mead, Nebraska's Fight For Its Future

Aug. 4, 2021, 3 p.m. ·

Documentary Focuses on Mead, Nebraska's Fight For Its Future
(Graphic by Lisa Craig, Nebraska Public Media)

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A transcript of the full documentary is available here.

Ethanol in Mead, Part 1: E3 Biofuels and the Innovative Closed-Loop System

When Mead, Nebraska’s ethanol plant was first built in the early 2000s, residents were promised their community would be home to the cutting edge of ethanol production: a pledge backed with money from both state and federal government. The plant’s first iteration, E3 Biofuels, intended to pioneer a closed-loop production system that promised to produce fuel without any leftover waste or reliance on fossil fuels. “It seemed like such a win-win, and the farmers would have been so unhappy if we would have voted no because there was a wonderful close outlet for their corn,” said Mead resident Jody Weible. “We thought it was going to be a boost for the community. An ethanol plant was the up-and-coming thing.”

Less than a year into operation, a boiler at the plant exploded. E3 Biofuels closed and filed for bankruptcy.

Several years later, the plant reopened under a new company with old management — AltEn, LLC.

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. (Photo by Gabriella Parsons, Nebraska Public Media)

Ethanol in Mead, Part 2: AltEn 2015 - present

The AltEn ethanol plant opened in January 2015. And within its first year of production, the company quietly made state history. Instead of buying field corn from local farmers, the company decided to make ethanol from seed. Each year, seed companies produce surplus seed so it was a plentiful and cheap alternative for ethanol production. The hitch? Nearly all industrial seed in the United States is coated with a layer of pesticide. Those chemicals ultimately contaminated AltEn’s liquid and solid byproducts at high levels, leading to public health and environmental concerns across Saunders County. In this 2012 letter, AltEn notified the State that it was exploring using treated seed corn to make ethanol.

photo of container belonging to Jody Weible in the foreground and someone writing in the background.
After the AltEn ethanol plant spilled millions of gallons of waste in early February, the state of Nebraska tested several public and private drinking wells around the village of Mead for contamination. No contamination was detected, but Jody Weible remains concerned that contamination could become a problem due to AltEn's pollution of the area. Some Mead residents have opted to drink only bottled water despite receiving clean tests. Photo by Gabriella Parsons, Nebraska Public Media News

The Smell

In late 2017, state regulators urged AltEn to begin distributing the wetcake -- a byproduct from the ethanol process -- to decrease the piles of material on its property. Over the following months, the company started trucking the material across Saunders County. Within months of restarting production, residents like Jody Weible started noticing a thick stench coming from the plant.

They were smelling thousands of tons of rotting wetcake, piled on AltEn’s property. The company was collecting the material on its property after promising to compost and spread some on local farmland as a soil conditioner.

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)

Mead Residents Search For Answers

Soon, residents complained of an unbearable smell, sick pets, and strange health problems. Two residents, in particular, sought answers.

Jody Weible moved to Mead in the 1980s and lives roughly a mile from the AltEn plant. She was the chair of the Mead Planning Commission that initially approved E3 Biofuel’s construction. She’s become the de facto leader of the movement against AltEn, gathering complaints from Mead residents who feared the company was polluting their community, decreasing their property values, and even making them sick.

Paula Dyas sitting on her wooden porch with three dogs.
Paula Dyas lives on an acreage 6 miles outside of Mead, Nebraska. In the spring of 2018, three of her dogs became seriously ill after coming in contact with byproduct made from pesticide-treated seed corn by the AltEn ethanol plant. Photo by Gabriella Parsons, Nebraska Public Media News

Paula Dyas lives about six miles from AltEn. She owns three big dogs: Buddy, Athena and Scout, all of whom got sick from eating the corn mash wetcake AltEn spread on her neighbor’s fields. After reaching out to AltEn and the state for information about possible pollution in AltEn’s wetcake, she sent a sample for testing to the University of Iowa’s Veterinary lab. The results found the material was contaminated with unknown levels of several pesticides. She shared the results with the state, which did not test the material until nearly a year later.

February 2021: AltEn Closes and The Polar Vortex Causes “An Uncontrolled Release”

After years of committing environmental violations and ignoring state orders to fix them, the state of Nebraska ordered AltEn to close on February 4, 2021. According to a state report, just after midnight on February 12, 2021, a frozen pipe at one of AltEn’s digesters caused millions of gallons of liquid waste to spill across the countryside, traveling up to five miles away from AltEn. Mahmud Fitil, an activist with the indigenous-led Ní Btháska Stand activist collective and the Great Plains Action Society, live-streamed a video of the spill on Facebook.

Town Halls

In April 2021, several advocate groups from across Nebraska organized a live-streamed town hall focusing on the AltEn ethanol plant. The event presented a timeline of the plant’s history, followed by a Q&A, where residents expressed concerns about ongoing pollution by the plant and when cleanup efforts would begin. Most recently, in July, State Senator Carol Blood held another town hall in Mead which included residents telling stories of impacts by AltEn’s pollution. Blood also recently wrote to the Department of Environment and Energy seeking information about AltEn, which the state provided a public response outlining various regulatory actions Nebraska has taken against AltEn and more.

Jody Weible at Town Hall walking down an aisle between two sets of chairs filled with people.
Jody Weible greets attendees at a town hall held in Mead in April. Photo by Gabriella Parsons, Nebraska Public Media News

Ongoing Research Efforts

AltEn's pollution poses unique challenges to researchers looking to understand both environmental and public health impacts. Judy Wu-Smart, an entomologist at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, has been investigating the source of bee die-offs in Mead for years after her research hives started collapsing in 2017. In 2020, Wu-Smart published a white paper report detailing her theory that pesticides found on treated seed may be polluting waterways in Mead and impacting local ecosystems. “So here we have a chemical mixture, lots of fungicides, neonicotinoids, other agricultural herbicides, and insecticides at lower levels,” she explained. “We don't really know the impact of those mixtures.”

Judy Wu-Smart speaking at a microphone before a crowd at a town hall meeting.
Judy Wu-Smart presents her research at an April town hall held in Mead. Photo by Gabriella Parsons, Nebraska Public Media News

The February 2020 spill has only complicated getting answers for Mead. The University of Nebraska is using a $200,000 private donation to track AltEn’s pollution and its impacts on the environment and community. But it hopes to raise $10 million to extend the study for a decade.

Sheldon Brummell holding up a sample of water standing in front of a ditch with water.
Sheldon Brummell samples water from a ditch near the AltEn ethanol plant. The Bee Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has been investigating the source of local bee die-offs for years. AltEn's pollution poses unique challenges to researchers looking to understand impacts. The impacts of mixing herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides together are not well known. Photo by Christina Stella, Nebraska Public Media News

Nebraska Sues AltEn and Seed Companies Step Up

On March 1, 2021, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson released a 97-page lawsuit containing 18 causes of action against AltEn. The lawsuit details years of AltEn’s violations and failure to comply with state-mandated actions for AltEn to dispose of its waste safely.

On June 11, 2021, the State announced that six seed companies that formerly supplied AltEn with treated seed would participate in a voluntary clean-up program allowing private entities to plan and pay for interim cleanup at the plant. In a statement from the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, a representative wrote: “Interim cleanup actions are already being implemented by the group, such as stormwater controls for the wetcake and treatment of the lagoon water in an effort to lower the levels of wastewater in the lagoons.”

But questions remain around remediation efforts for contamination that took place off-site from the AltEn plant. In a statement to Nebraska Public Media News, a representative for Gov. Pete Ricketts wrote:

“The wellbeing of the people of Mead and the surrounding area is of the utmost importance. The State of Nebraska has taken significant actions to address AltEn, including filing a lawsuit, facilitating an initial cleanup plan backed by seed corn companies, and providing numerous updates to the public through the NDEE information portal. The Governor's Office and state agencies will continue to provide updates at the appropriate time to the Legislature's committees of jurisdiction who are working on the AltEn response, including the Executive Committee and Natural Resources Committee.”

Sun setting over Mead, Nebraska with a house, trees and water tower in the foreground.
The sun shines through the trees in the small town of Mead, Nebraska. Photo by Gabriella Parsons, Nebraska Public Media News

Records related to the AltEn plant can be viewed through the state’s public information portal using Facility ID 84069.

This story was reported by Christina Stella of Nebraska Public Media News, with editing by Kerry Donahue. Dennis Kellogg is News Director at Nebraska Public Media. Sam Cai provided fact-checking and Peregrine Andrews provided sound design.

Gabriella Parsons contributed additional reporting and photography to this project. Editorial support provided by the PMJA Editor Corps which is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.