‘Way Ahead of Schedule’: Nebraskans Weigh in on Plans to Renew Permit Allowing AltEn to Release Treated Wastewater

April 27, 2022, 10:30 p.m. ·

A woman sits at a table with a microphone in a high school gym. “Mead Raiders” is painted onto the gym wall underneath a painting of a pirate. The woman is speaking to two people seated at a separate table in front of her.
Laura Steele speaks at the public hearing in Mead on Wednesday night. Steele recently moved to Wahoo, less than 10 miles from Mead, and said the department should do “rigorous investigation” into potential human health effects before renewing permits. (Photo by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media)

Listen To This Story

Nebraska’s Department of Environment and Energy heard from several Nebraskans that its plans to renew a permit for AltEn to release treated wastewater onto nearby land are “unwise” and “way ahead of schedule”.

NDEE hearing officer and attorney Steven Thomas heard the comments during a public meeting at the Mead high school gym Wednesday night. The testimonies will be given to department director Jim Macy to consider before deciding to renew or dismiss the permit.

Millions of gallons of water were contaminated when the ethanol plant used pesticide-coated seed corn to make ethanol. The AltEn Facility Response Group has clarified and filtered 12 million gallons through sand and carbon processes.

The response group is made up of the seed companies – Bayer, Sygenta, Corteva, AgReliant, Beck’s Superior Hybrids and WinField Solutions – that sent AltEn the corn to make ethanol. Those companies are also suing AltEn for allegedly violating agreement terms and other claims.

The treated water would be released onto four sites of agricultural land in Saunders County within three miles of the plant. Groundwater wells are at least 30 feet down at three of the sites. At one site, the groundwater water level is anticipated to be at least four feet down, according to the department.

Laura Steele recently moved to Wahoo, just under ten miles away from Mead, and said she was concerned about how releasing treated wastewater may impact human health.

“Will this impact my fertility in 20 to 30 years? Because of this exposure, am I going to be at an increased risk of certain diseases, certain cancers?” Steele asked in her testimony. “It doesn’t seem like we’ve done as much rigorous investigation into the anticipated public health outcomes as part of the permitting process."

AltEn must also keep track of groundwater and soil quality and monitor for an updated slate of pesticides, according to the conditions of the modified permit.

Some were concerned with renewing a permit for a defunct company that allegedly violated regulations at least twelve times before the state shut down the plant.

Janece Mollhoff lives in Ashland and is a part of an activist group that’s been keeping track of AltEn. She said the permit should be granted to the group of seed corn companies that have been cleaning up the ethanol plant, not the inoperative company.

“There's not a person in this room who's delusional enough to think that AltEn by itself will comply with this permit,” Mollhoff said in her testimony. “AltEn is currently in violation of a current permit … and experience shows that they will continue to be in violation of any permit going forward.”

Millions of gallons of polluted water still remain at the AltEn site outside of Mead.

“The longer those contaminants stay on site, the worse this is going to get in terms of leaching into the groundwater, and potential for other other problems,” John Schalles, a biology professor at Creighton University who’s studying the contamination impacts, said in his testimony. “This permit raises as many questions as it answers. I'm not sure the state should be ready to forge ahead with this plan without more being known.”