MEAD, Neb. (DTN) -- The sound of trucks moving waste away from the former AltEn LLC ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska, 40 miles north of Lincoln signal hope for residents of the village of 569 people.
Gone is the company's sign that once greeted visitors to the plant from the highway.
Gone is the burning odor that once wafted from standing piles of rotting wet distillers grains and the stench of pesticides-laden water from lagoons on the property -- recent air-test results bear that out.
Seed companies that sent pesticide-coated seeds to the plant say they are in the cleanup for the long haul. Those companies formed a coalition to clean up the site -- including AgReliant, Bayer, Beck's, Corteva, Syngenta and WinField.
No one knows for sure how long the cleanup will take.
"As far as cleanup, I will say most people think that it is taking too long," Mead Mayor William Thorson told DTN.
"But this is a difficult process and the people and companies involved in the cleanup are working hard on making sure it is done right and safe as to not cause another problem. As for the seed companies' relationship with the village, I feel they are listening to our wants and concerns."
PLANT SHUT DOWN IN 2021
The AltEn plant ran into a series of environmental problems and was shut down by the state in spring 2021.
The plant stored on site corn seeds treated with neonicotinoid insecticides and fungicides. AltEn did not dispose of the pesticide-contaminated distillers grains and wastewater properly.
The University of Nebraska Medical Center is undertaking a project to monitor possible health effects caused by environmental contamination.
The seed companies hired an Atlanta-based engineering firm NewFields to plan and execute the removal of waste materials from the plant.
NewFields is studying the feasibility of moving to a landfill 115,000 tons of wet cake still covering and consolidated on about 16 acres of ground at the northwest corner of the ethanol plant property.
That work includes putting together a pilot program to determine whether the material can be safely moved to landfills.
In addition, the company plans to install a new water-filtration system onsite to support the ongoing treatment of lagoon water at the plant.
Engineers already have treated about 49 million gallons of lagoon water laden with pesticides and the water has been land applied on ag ground within a 3-mile radius of the plant.
This week workers are removing wooden pallets, geotextile and lagoon liner materials left behind on site, hauling the materials to a landfill in Bennington, Nebraska, during the next couple of months.
"As far as their timeline -- it's unknown but they are moving as fast as possible and they have told us they are here until it's done," Thorson said.
MEAD PRESENTS UNIQUE CHALLENGE
Bill Butler, engineer and partner with NewFields, told DTN in an interview that while he has been involved in similar projects the type of material involved in the Mead cleanup is unique.
"From a technical standpoint I think what is a little bit unique about this is the physical characteristics of this material," Butler said.
"It's not like soil we can just load up into a truck and haul somewhere or handle it really easily because it's light material. It's compressed, almost spongy-like, and all these factors make it difficult as well as this material has unique odors associated."
In order to move the old distillers grains, Butler said they will work to better solidify the material before shipping. That includes blending the material with a solidification reagent that could include Portland cement, fly ash from a coal-fired power plant, cement kiln or lime kiln dust.
Engineers have been able to keep the odor at a minimum from the consolidated pile by covering it with deposit shell material, Butler said.
The pilot project plan is to take up to 1,000 truckloads of wet cake to landfills, Butler said.
Each truck can handle about 24 tons per load, meaning the pilot project will move about 24,000 tons or a little bit under one-fourth of the total pile.
To keep the material in the truck beds, Butler said they will install plastic liners in the trucks and wrap the material to keep it from going airborne.
"We were waiting to complete all that planning and nail everything down with various contractors, landfills, etc. before we're ready to come up with a date as to when that's going to happen and how long it's going to take," Butler said.
"I can't speak about the community abroad but at least with the community leaders group they seem to be satisfied that we're doing things in the right manner and that we'll continue doing things in the right manner," Butler said.
Thorson said the community has been impressed by NewFields' interest in making things right. Company representatives have been making monthly visits from Atlanta to Mead to share updates on the cleanup.
The work is progressing, but questions remain.
"The biggest question of townspeople seems to be when will the solids get removed and is it affecting groundwater," Thorson said.
"Overall, I believe things are starting to progress towards the cleaning up this site and I think the entities involved are doing their best with a very difficult situation."
Read more on DTN:
"Court Freezes Neb. Ethanol Plant Assets," https://www.dtnpf.com/…
"Health Monitoring Planned in Mead, NE," https://www.dtnpf.com/…
"Mead Ethanol Plant Cleanup Ongoing," https://www.dtnpf.com/…
Todd Neeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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