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Nebraska Ethanol Plant Runs Into More Environmental Problems

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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AltEn LLC's ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska, faces additional environmental challenges. (DTN file photo by Todd Neeley)

The state of Nebraska is dealing with a new environmental risk at the AltEn LLC 25-million-gallon ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska, after a pipe burst at the plant at the end of last week in the middle of sub-zero temperatures.

The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy said in a news release this week that the state continues to monitor a spill coming from a 4-million-gallon digester at the plant.

The leak of thin stillage and manure was located more than 4 miles downstream to the southeast of the pipe burst.

"As of Feb. 16, the discharge is not migrating further and has not reached the Platte River," the NDEE said. "AltEn has constructed a dam south of the Highway 66 and Road 7 junction to prevent further migration."

State officials were at the plant last Friday and throughout the weekend to monitor and assess the discharge.

"NDEE collected samples to determine if the material contains pesticides and requested support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 7," NDEE said in a release. "The EPA was on site to assess the spill, collect additional samples, give advice on cleanup and help with mitigation efforts. Sampling results could take up to two weeks to return."

On Wednesday, the NDEE issued a letter of non-compliance to AltEn, directing the company to construct additional barriers to prevent further migration of the spill, to conduct hourly inspections for leaks on the plant's second digester in case it springs a leak, and to build secondary containment.

The company was directed to provide written plans by noon on Thursday.

"These plans are expected to describe how the facility will recover, transport, and dispose of the digester material and how the facility plans to prevent and contain a potential discharge from its second digester," NDEE said.

The ethanol plant was once considered to be a glimpse of the promise of a renewable energy future and an economic development tool for the village of Mead.

Wet distillers grains containing pesticides and fungicides applied to farmland has created a terrible, nose-burning odor in and around the village of 569 residents.

AltEn shut down its plant after the state ordered closure following numerous environmental violations.

The NDEE issued an emergency order to cease operations at the plant on Feb. 4. AltEn completed shutdown on Feb. 8.

Violations outlined in the order include excess water levels in and damage to the plant's three lagoons, high levels of numerous pesticides and fungicide chemicals found in the lagoon water and wet distillers, as well as a failure on the part of AltEn to stop land-applying wet distillers after being ordered by the state.

State records show numerous complaints were filed by area residents, who say the odor coming from land-applied wet cake is causing health issues. The state has given AltEn 30 days to submit a plan to dispose of lagoon wastewater and to clean up standing wet distillers on the property.

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Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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Todd Neeley