UNMC scientists: Mead residents have reason to be concerned about AltEn waste

By: - June 16, 2022 11:08 pm
AltEn meeting

About 50 people attended a meeting Thursday night in Mead to learn more about the extent of contamination found near the closed AltEn Ethanol plant. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

MEAD, Nebraska — Deb Virgl said the pile of “wet cake” waste from the local ethanol plant, deposited near her rural home, reeked so horribly that she stopped walking the dog.
 “You almost threw up when you went outside,” said Virgl, who lives northeast of Mead and its now infamous AltEn Ethanol plant.
 The plant became infamous for using pesticide-coated seed corn to produce ethanol unlike other ethanol plants, which use field corn that’s also used to feed cattle.
Sixteen months ago, the plant was shut down after repeatedly ignoring orders by state environmental regulators to clean up the massive piles of odorous, spent contaminated grain, left over from the process of making ethanol and stockpiled at the plant.
Virgl was among about 50 local residents who came to the Mead Fire Hall Thursday night to hear what a team of scientists had found out, so far, about the extent of contamination to the local air, surface water and soil from the plant.

Adverse impacts

Such residents have a right to be concerned, said Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and one of those scientists involved in investigating issues related to AltEn.
Dr. Ali Khan
Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

“There’s good reasons to suspect that there could be adverse impacts … that’s why we’re here,” Khan said. “You see enough dead bees to know that isn’t a good thing.”
Local residents like Virgl said they were glad to hear that several investigations have been underway over the past year.
Students are sampling frogs and seining for tadpoles, and probing red-winged blackbird nests to discover if such “sentinel” species for pesticide contamination are declining or having trouble reproducing.
Hives of bees are being studied for mortality and levels of pesticides. Air samples have been taken, and the inside of one Mead home was swabbed for pesticides. Samples have also been taken from the wet cake piles and from soil nearby, as well as from two streams that drain from the AltEn site, just south of Mead.

Many test results months away

Often at the meeting, residents were told that tests haven’t been completed yet.
Results from many of the tests are three to six months away, Khan said, adding that researchers may need 10 years to figure out whether the contamination has caused adverse health and environmental impacts.
What is known so far, officials said, is that many of the 21 chemicals of concern, including a family of insecticides called “neonicotinoids,” are being found in soil and in streams leading from the plant, as well as in swabs in one home.
Nearby bee hives saw high mortality rates in recent years, but have seemed to show some recovery since the plant was closed in February of 2021, said Judy Wu-Smart, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln bee expert who monitors the hives near the AltEn plant.
Some in the audience nodded their heads when a UNMC official said the highest concentration of neonicotinoids found in surface water was in a reservoir on Johnson Creek, 4 1/2 miles from the plant.

‘Not into fear mongering’

Officials said that a medical registry of local residents will soon begin to track medical issues to see if they differ from those experienced elsewhere. Nearby residents were also urged to allow sampling in their home or on their farm ground, so as much data as possible can be obtained.
“I’m not into fear mongering,” Khan said. “I’m very much about getting the best possible data we can.”
A local minister, the Rev. John Schnell, and a couple who moved into a home near the AltEn plant just after revelations about the contamination went public, Andy and Molly Jackson, said they want the best possible data, too. And they’re eager for a final plan, due next month, on a permanent solution to ridding the plant site of the piles of wet cake, that were recently covered with a plaster-like coating.
“We’re hoping that all the options are being looked at,” Schnell said.
That, he said, includes incinerating the wet cake.
The Examiner reported this week that a cement plant in Louisville recently got permission to burn “biomass,” including treated seed, in its cement kiln. However, officials with Ash Grove Cement said that seed won’t include the wet cake stockpiled at AltEn.

Legislative financial boost

Khan and others thanked the Nebraska Legislature for allocating $1 million to finance continued studies related to the AltEn plant. Previously, scientists had been volunteering their time, with tests being financed by Omaha philanthropist Dr. Anne Hubbard.
Khan added that the Environmental Protection Agency just recently announced it was taking another look at the use of neonicotinoids, which are banned in some European countries. The EPA, he said, will issue a biological opinion after determining that it’s likely the insecticides are harming endangered species.
Virgl was one of the last people to leave Thursday night’s meeting. She said she’s concerned about any health impacts the pile of contaminated waste corn might have caused.
She said she has more digestion problems these days, which might be advancing age, but that her dog had seizures when the pile was sitting next to her rural home.
“I think there’s still a lot left to be figured out here,” Virgl said.

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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.