The AltEn sign had been taken down by January 2022, but the cleanup at the plant, which used contaminated seed corn to make corn-based ethanol, continues. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)
TOPEKA — A Nebraska company nearly unloaded its toxic ethanol byproduct on an unsuspecting Topeka farmer before regulators intervened in late December.
AltEn, which is under close observation after creating an environmental crisis in Mead, Nebraska, didn’t disclose the risks of its biochar before selling it to Brady Yingling, owner of B. Cole Agriculture, according to emails made available by Nebraska authorities.
A Nebraska official alerted his Kansas counterpart to the transaction, setting in motion a flurry of conversations that convinced Yingling on Jan. 6 to back out of a deal to acquire 600 “supersacks” of biochar and apply it to fields where he grows corn and soybeans.
After learning that the biochar was tainted with concentrated pesticide and that he would be responsible for proper disposal of the material, Yingling told regulators he wouldn’t accept the biochar. He worried about the harm it would cause to beneficial insects and the children he works with through a 4-H program.
“As a young family man we feel strongly about eco-friendly processes,” Yingling said in an email to a Kansas environmental official. “Having three children I want to insure they are eating properly and healthy. Free of waste of any kind that could impact their health. I personally thank you for bringing this situation to my attention.”
The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy sued AltEn last year for polluting land and water with solid and liquid waste from its ethanol plant.
Since 2015, the company had made ethanol from seed corn that had been treated with pesticide, storing brown and greenish wastewater from the process in leaking lagoons. AltEn made biochar, a product that can be used as a soil conditioner, by applying intense heat to leftover grains. The department in 2019 ordered the company to stop applying its waste to fields.
“Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of science would understand that when making ethanol out of treated seeds, you cannot eliminate the pesticide in that process,” said Al Davis, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club’s Nebraska chapter. “It’s going to stay with the residue. It’s not hard to figure out. So in my opinion, they knew exactly what they were doing and they didn’t care.”
Tanner Shaw, president of AltEn, notified Nebraska authorities on Dec. 27 that B. Cole Agriculture, 10 miles north of Topeka, had agreed to remove all of the biochar from the Mead plant. Tests by Environment and Energy previously found the biochar to be toxic, but Shaw insisted those results must have been a mistake.
Tom Buell, an administrator at Environment and Energy, notified Bob Jurgens, director of environmental remediation at the Kansas Department for Health and Environment, and provided evidence the biochar was contaminated.
Jurgens contacted Yingling.
“They were very surprised that KDHE would regulate the biochar use in Kansas,” Jurgens said in a Dec. 30 email to Buell. “AltEn had not told them about the NDEE requirement for landfill disposal.”
Nebraska Environment and Energy published the correspondence with documents related to the Mead cleanup in an online database.
Jody Weible, who lives three-quarters of a mile from AltEn’s rank facility in Mead, said she has suffered allergy-like symptoms since 2018, when AltEn spread its product on nearby fields.
She provided text messages in which her neighbors reported trouble breathing, coughing, sneezing and sinus pain, and an image of pus oozing from the eyes of her neighbor’s daughter.
The AltEn president “should be criminally prosecuted, in a heartbeat,” Weible said, for trying to transfer the biochar to a Kansas business.
Nebraska authorities shut down the ethanol plant Feb. 10, 2021, for repeated violations of environmental orders. Two days later, because of intense freezing temperatures, a four-million-gallon container began releasing wastewater into a drainage ditch and neighboring property.
Davis said the Sierra Club received subsequent reports of raccoons and dogs dying downstream. Mead is about 30 miles west of Omaha and 40 miles north of Lincoln.
In response to inquiries for this story, Nebraska and Kansas authorities couldn’t say how much material is in the “supersacks” that Yingling planned to retrieve from AltEn. Court documents said there are 84,000 tons of solid waste left at the facility — nearly enough to fill the University of Nebraska football stadium to the brim.
“The state tested it, recognized that it was full of pesticides and told them they needed to label it,” Davis said. “And they instead sold it to a Kansas farm without a label. Now, I’m not sure where the line between criminality and an honest mistake is, but at this point in the game, the owners of AltEn knew what they were doing.”
Neither Yingling nor Shaw responded to requests to comment for this story.
An obituary published by the Kansas City Star identified Shaw as the stepson of Dennis Langley, a prominent Democrat and businessman who died in 2017. According to the obituary, Langley was a speechwriter for Joe Biden, chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party and founder of the Kansas Pipeline Operating Company.
This story was originally published by the Kansas Reflector, a sister site of the Nebraska Examiner in the States Newsroom Network.
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