Seed Companies Volunteer to Clean Up Mead

Companies May Be at Nebraska Plant Conducting Cleanup For at Least 2 Years

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Environmental Editor
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Six seed companies have applied for a voluntary clean-up program with the state of Nebraska, as part of the environmental restoration at a contaminated ethanol plant in Mead. (DTN image by Chris Clayton and Nick Scalise)

LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- Six seed companies have applied for a voluntary program in the state of Nebraska to conduct a cleanup of a now-closed, contaminated ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska.

If approved for the results-based program, the coalition of companies that includes AgReliant Genetics, LLC; Bayer U.S., LLC; Beck's Superior Hybrids, Inc.; Corteva Agriscience, LLC; Syngenta Seeds, LLC; and WinField Solutions, LLC, would be allowed to continue clean-up efforts overseen by the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE).

The seed companies would be responsible for paying for site investigations and cleanup actions -- at no cost to taxpayers, according to a news release from the state.

The 24-million-gallon ethanol plant closed down after a pipe break last winter and a series of environmental problems at the site. AltEn used discarded seed treated with pesticides and fungicides to produce ethanol. High levels of the chemicals have been found in lagoons and in piles of wet distillers grains at the plant.

The NDEE said on Thursday seed companies already have "voluntarily undertaken" interim remedial work at the site since Feb. 12, 2021. That work has been "primarily focusing on managing wastewater lagoon levels and liners. They have also assisted with emergency response by helping manage the environmental impacts of wet cake and waste materials onsite through containment and stormwater management."

Mark Bowers, senior remediation officer for Bayer, told DTN the coalition of seed companies will be in Mead until the site is cleaned.

"There's lots of things went wrong," he said about the AltEn situation.

"Our safe-handling requirements and our specific contractual terms, from Bayer's perspective, weren't followed at all, which may have contributed to this. But, as evidenced by the fact that the facility response group was formed and we made this commitment to the voluntary cleanup program to work with NDEE, I think that shows that we're all committed and we're ready to see this thing through."

Groundwater tests conducted near the Mead plant have come back negative for pesticides or fungicides, state documents show.

Bowers said there's no reason to believe area residents are in danger.

"With the facility response group entering into the voluntary cleanup program we're addressing NDEE's priorities that they've established for the lagoons themselves, drawing the water down, and treating it," he said.

"With respect to the wet cake or distillers grain, the priority there was controlling the stormwater that came off of rainfall events. And so we hired some expert contractors who have been out there doing the filtration work for the water, and they were able to address the berms. They either repaired, bolstered or newly constructed berms to ensure that they fully encircled each of the primary wet cake piles. And then after, after rain events that water is collected and placed in in secure storage in the lagoons."

The seed companies have committed to conducting interim remedial measures at the site while developing a remedial action plan, the state said in the news release.

Such a plan would be subject to public notice and comment. The state said a plan could be the basis for long-term remedial measures at the site.

The ethanol plant's wastewater became contaminated with a high concentration of neonic pesticides, as did the ethanol plant's distillers grains.

Since neither its wastewater or leftover wet cake could be applied to area farmland, the lagoons remain full of contaminated water and there is an estimated 84,000 tons of wet cake in piles at the plant. Nebraska sued the ethanol plant in March to shut it down,….

AltEn is one of just two known ethanol plants in the country that accepted treated seed. The second, in Kansas, is licensed for only 2 million gallons of production and processes significantly smaller volumes of treated seed.

The state of Nebraska recently passed and signed into law a bill banning the use of treated seed in ethanol production. Other states are considering similar measures.

"The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy is pleased with the group's willingness to participate in the VCP (voluntary clean-up program). This program creates opportunities for third parties to efficiently clean up sites," NDEE Director Jim Macy said in a news release.

"By stepping up to address AltEn's contamination issues, the group will help provide a significant measure of protection to the citizens of Mead and surrounding areas."

Ed Chu, acting regional administrator for EPA Region 7, said in a news release, "This is a positive step towards implementing the long-term response actions needed at this facility. We look forward to continuing to provide support and assistance to NDEE to ensure the contamination is properly and fully addressed."

Once the state approves the seed companies' plan, they will have six months to begin work at the site and 24 months to complete it, NDEE said.

AltEn processed millions of bushels of corn seed treated with neonicotinoid pesticides and fungicides until last year and marketed the plant as an option for seed companies to dispose of unused treated corn seed.

In its efforts to advertise its services as a location to dispose of treated seed, AltEn sent out emails as recently as last year stating that it was under "long-term contract" to accept discards from many major seed companies, including Monsanto (now owned by Bayer), Syngenta, Dow (now owned by Corteva), AgReliant and Land O'Lakes, through its Winfield United business. AltEn advertised it accepted the treated seed at no charge.

AltEn advertised that it was still accepting the treated seed even after state officials had banned AltEn from allowing the leftover wet cake to be used as an area soil conditioner,….

Bowers said the seed industry, as a whole, is studying the issue of what to do with discarded seed, in light of the situation in Mead.

"It's larger than Bayer alone," he said.

"So, we're collaborating with industry groups who are addressing the questions from an industry perspective -- the 30,000-foot view. How can industry in general address the issue? And as far as Bayer is concerned, like other companies, we're looking holistically. Once a new seed is generated, what can we do with it? Also, how can we manage our operations to produce less unused seed. These are significant issues and it'll take some time to address but we're committed to get it right in the end."

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Todd Neeley

Todd Neeley
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