Enviro Violations Drive Plant Closure

Pollution From Fungicide-, Pesticide-Containing WDG Led to Violations at Ethanol Plant

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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AltEn LLC's ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska, has closed by order of the state of Nebraska following several environmental violations. (DTN photo by Todd Neeley)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Once considered to be a crown jewel of environmental stewardship, a glimpse of the promise of a renewable energy future and an economic development tool for the village of Mead, Nebraska, a 25-million-gallon ethanol plant south of town now is driving people away.

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

"Our town has had to deal with a terrible stench of rotten grain so strong that people have moved," Mead Mayor William Thorson told DTN.

"Some people have said the reason they didn't buy a house for sale in Mead was due to the smell. You can't sit outside and kids don't go out for recess. We have had people complain about eyes burning and problems breathing, along with sick animals, so who knows what the future of our citizens and surrounding people's health will be."

The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy issued an emergency order to cease operations at the plant on Feb. 4. AltEn completed shutdown on Feb. 8, according to a news release from the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy.

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.

AltEn did not respond to DTN's request for comment.

The plant's original owner, E3 Biofuels, was forced to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy in November 2007 after $1 million in tornado damage to the plant in 2006 made it difficult to move the facility into full production.

E3 developed a so-called "closed-loop" system along with Mead Cattle Company. Construction was completed in 2007. In June 2007, the plant was touted during a grand opening as the only such facility in the world that doesn't use fossil fuels.

The plant was designed to produce energy by combining manure collected with thin stillage from the adjacent 30,000-head Mead Cattle Company. The hot-liquid mixture was decomposed inside an anaerobic digester, where bacteria extracted methane-rich biogas that is used to fire the plant's ethanol boilers.

Traditional ethanol plants are fueled primarily by natural gas.

In 2009, AltEn was the winning bidder for the plant in a bankruptcy auction. As part of a deal, the new owner agreed to continue the closed-loop concept, including providing wet distillers to Mead Cattle. Corn with pesticides and fungicides coating cannot be fed to cattle, leaving the plant to search for alternatives.

LABEL WARNINGS

The plant is the only known producer in the country to accept fungicide- and pesticide-coated corn as a feedstock.

In an Oct. 16, 2020, letter to AltEn, the state of Nebraska outlined a number of concerns about how the company handles wet distillers.

Included in that list: Seed company labels warn against land-applying seed byproducts.

"AltEn uses treated seed corn as a feedstock, and numerous labels for treated seed corn include a warning that the end byproduct cannot be land applied due to remaining pesticide residues," the letter stated.

"For example, Acceleron and Pioneer treated seed corn labels provide: 'Excess treated seed may be used for ethanol production only if by-products are not used for livestock feed, and no measurable residues of pesticides remain in ethanol by-products that are used in agronomic practice.' AltEN has failed to provide any information as to why that label warning should be ignored."

According to the Feb. 4 emergency order, AltEn has until March 1 to remove WDG piles around the plant and to dispose of wastewater. The company continued to apply lagoon wastewater even after the state ordered it to cease on Sept. 13, 2019, and the state said the lagoons need repair. On Oct. 2, 2020, the state sent a letter of noncompliance to AltEn for failing to stop those applications.

"According to a site visit on Sept. 11, 2020, the facility estimated that the average wastewater flow to the lagoons is 100,000 gallons per day," the Feb. 4 emergency order said.

"If the facility continues to discharge wastewater to the lagoons without any acceptable method approved by the department to dispose of the wastewater, the water levels in the lagoons will continue to rise and be susceptible to overflowing the dikes as precipitation increases in the spring."

Water tests in 2019 show the lagoons contained high levels of fungicides and pesticides, including glyphosate, azoxystrobin, clothiandin, thiabendazole and thiamethoxam.

"The pesticide levels found in the lagoon wastewater testing from April 8, 2019, and Nov. 12, 2019," the state said in a report, "far exceed the registered application rates for which EPA has conducted safety assessments for pesticide products and 'represents a level of contamination that has no uniformity or limit on the number and amount of pesticides present.' Some of these pesticides are known to leach and may contaminate groundwater."

Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy water samples from the lagoons and wet distillers, found levels of neonicotinoid insecticides, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, at between 30,000 and 50,000 parts per billion, as well as several fungicides as high as 200,000 ppb.

Tests found solid wet cake had twice as much neonicotinoid at 112,000 ppb clothianidin, 30,000 ppb thiamethoxam and, again, several fungicides were detected at high levels. The maximum daily oral dose for neonicotinoids in food and water set by the EPA ranges from 4 to 70 ppb.

In addition, the state said the company has not operated the plant according to the terms of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. Instead, the company "operated its facility in a manner that presents an emergency and imminent and substantial threat to human health and the environment."

BEE COLONY DEATHS

In an August 2020 white paper, University of Nebraska-Lincoln scientists pointed to the pesticides and fungicides in wet distillers grains as the likely reason for major bee colony losses in the Mead area.

UNL's bee team maintains 85 honeybee colonies at eight research and teaching apiaries across Nebraska.

"In the past three to four years, there have been consistent and rapid losses of honeybee colonies only at our research apiaries around the eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center in Mead, Nebraska," the white paper stated.

Since 2017, UNL has "lost every hive placed at ENREC, over 36 hives impacting our research program by roughly $21,000 for the cost of bees, contaminated equipment, and loss honey revenue.

"Placement of hives at ENREC was necessary for several funded projects, including a multi-state project. Investigations into the timing, extent and duration of bee losses coupled with pesticide residue data of milkweeds collected around ENREC have led us to believe that the water ways (streams, ditches, and channels) running through ENREC has potentially high levels of pesticide residues, including several systemic insecticides and fungicides common in seed coat treatments."

MOVING FORWARD

Thorson said the plant would be welcome to restart if it can complete cleanup and follow environmental regulations.

"We would like them shut down until the site is cleaned up of all waste, all contamination and they can operate within regulations and a safe environmental practice," he said.

Mead prides itself on being an alternative to city life, yet Thorson said the image has been tarnished.

"We've had a couple people who moved into town; they were here for less than a year," he said. "They can't deal with it, and moved out. I know another house that's still up for sale right now. I was told someone had heard wind of the ethanol plant, and they said they didn't want to take the chance in case it would be in the water."

Mead's village water supply is unaffected, Thorson said, but when word spread about the ethanol plant, "You get paranoid right off the bat."

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

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Todd Neeley