State approved the use of pesticide-coated seed corn for ethanol plant a decade ago

Critics of slow cleanup at AltEn plant express surprise that it was called a ‘minor’ change

By: - February 8, 2022 8:10 pm
AltEn ethanol plant

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)

LINCOLN — A troubled ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska, had state approval to use seed corn treated with harmful pesticides years before state regulators raised concerns.

Recently discovered state documents indicate that Nebraska environmental regulators approved the use of seed corn by the troubled AltEn ethanol plant back on July 26, 2012.

The state’s lawsuit against AltEn said that state regulators were not aware that chemically coated seed corn was in use at the plant until 2015 and that they weren’t aware the coatings were hazardous until 2018.

The revelation, including that state regulators didn’t regard the use of treated seed corn as important enough to merit a public hearing because it was a “minor” change, prompted increased calls Tuesday for a special investigation by the Nebraska Legislature of the facility and its impact on public health and environment.

One more frustration for neighbors

State Sen. Carol Blood (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Service)

“We need to get to the bottom of this,” said Al Davis, a former state senator and a representative of the Sierra Club of Nebraska.

State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, who has introduced a proposal to conduct the legislative investigation, said that calling a switch to using pesticide-coated seed corn a “minor” change seemed to indicate a lack of understanding and concern by the state.

A nearby resident of the AltEn plant, Jody Weible, said the revelation was one more frustration about AltEn, which still holds 80,000 tons of contaminated waste corn on its site south of Mead. 

“I’m surprised they got permission and didn’t let us know,” said Weible, who formerly served on the planning board that initially approved the AltEn facility. 

A spokeswoman for the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office said Tuesday that there was nothing inaccurate about the state’s lawsuit against AltEn and that use of chemically treated seed corn for ethanol had been permitted, as long as it wasn’t fed to livestock after being used to produce alcohol.

Company didn’t follow through

Suzanne Gage said that in 2012, AltEn had planned, as part of an amendment to its composting permit, to test for pesticide levels in the corn after it went through the distilling process and provide an application rate for the byproducts.

But that never happened, Gage said. She pointed to a Feb. 14, 2013, letter from AltEn stating that “Grain (mainly corn) will continue to be the primary raw material” used to produce ethanol, which traditionally uses field corn.

Gage said the Department of Environment and Energy discovered in 2015, after operations resumed at AltEn, that the operation had changed its mind and had begun to use treated seed rather than field corn to produce ethanol. 

The state’s lawsuit, she said, deals only “with events after AltEn began using treated seed and generated byproducts containing measurable residues of pesticides.”

Special investigation sought

That’s of little solace to those concerned about what they perceive as a slow cleanup process at AltEn, which was shut down by the state a year ago after years of complaints about foul odor and concerns about health impacts and contamination of nearby fields, where spent ethanol grains had been deposited as soil conditioners for a while. 

Among the chemicals of concern that were used on the seed corn were neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides chemically related to nicotine that have been banned in Europe and have been linked to deaths of bees. Alarm bells have been raised about declines in colonies of bees on University of Nebraska property near the AltEn plant.

Blood, who is a Democratic candidate for governor, and Weible are part of a group of concerned citizens who have been meeting since last spring in hopes of getting the large piles of contaminated waste corn, leftover from the ethanol process, hauled away to landfills or incinerators.

The concerned citizens group wasn’t aware of the 2012 approval by the state until last week and was surprised when the documents were discovered. They were among the hundreds of public records about AltEn available on the NDEE’s website.

Alten’s response to the state’s lawsuit, filed in April, stated that the company had applied to modify its composting permit to utilize pesticide-treated seed corn in 2012 and that the state had approved the request.

Lawsuit alleges multiple violations

The company’s response to the state’s lawsuit states, several times, that “AltEn denies any inference that it violated applicable law.”

The state’s lawsuit against AltEn, filed March 1, alleged multiple environmental violations by the company, including failure to dispose of the leftover grain, improper operation of wastewater lagoons and failure to meet multiple deadlines to comply with state environmental orders.

Late in the 2021 legislative session, Blood proposed Legislative Resolution 159, which would create a nine-member AltEn LLC Ethanol Plant Special Investigative and Oversight Committee. The committee was to investigate and report by December whether AltEn had harmed public health and groundwater and estimate the costs of disposing of the leftover waste grain and remediation of nearby farm fields where the pesticide-laced corn had been deposited.

The resolution was laid over to the 2022 session, but it has not yet been scheduled for a public hearing. Blood said she had been promised an early hearing this year by the chairman of the Executive Board, Venango Sen. Dan Hughes, but that hasn’t happened, and the 60-day session has already passed day 21.

$10 million study proposed

Hughes said Tuesday he planned to schedule a hearing later this month or in early March. 

Blood also introduced LB 1048, which would appropriate $10 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln “to evaluate the chemicals released and pollution caused by ethanol production facilities.” A March 3 hearing has been set for that proposal.

Brainard Sen. Bruce Bostelman, whose district includes Mead, introduced his LB 1102 at a public hearing last week. The bill was billed as granting more powers to the NDEE to regulate problem facilities. It would also set up a $300,000 remediation program to finance cleanups of contaminated sites.

Last year, state lawmakers passed a bill banning the use of chemically coated seed corn in ethanol production.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.