AltEn plans test run to truck processed wet cake to landfill near Bennington

State senator says it’s ‘moving the mess from one community to another’

By: - August 22, 2023 7:09 pm
AltEn

Piles of an estimated 115,000 tons of contaminated waste grain from the closed AltEn ethanol facility await hauling away, to the Douglas County landfill. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Editor’s note: this story has been updated to add additional comment from Douglas County officials.

LINCOLN — Hauling away a mountain of contaminated “wet cake” from the controversial AltEn ethanol plant near Mead will soon begin in earnest, officials announced Tuesday.

And the destination for an initial 24,000 tons of the waste seed corn is, as some expected, a landfill near Omaha.

Officials with NewFields, the company hired for the cleanup, said that if an initial “pilot test” of mixing the wet cake with powdery clay and safely hauling it to the Pheasant Point Landfill works, then what’s left of a 16-acre pile of the waste grain — estimated at 115,000 tons — will be shipped there.

The plan is to wrap the processed waste in plastic, described as a “burrito,” and cover the semi trailer loads with a canvas tarp, to quell dust and odors, during the transport. Wheels of trucks will also be washed off prior to leaving the AltEn site.

‘Solution for site and community’

“We are excited to get this phase of the work started as we work toward a solution for the site and community,” said Don Gunster, an environmental scientist with NewFields.

The AltEn ethanol plant, south of Mead, was originally designed to use energy generated by methane gas produced at an adjacent feedlot to power the distillation of corn into ethanol. (Courtesy of NewFields)

On Wednesday, an official who oversees the landfill for Douglas County, Kent Holm, said he had no concerns with the waste going to the Pheasant Point Landfill.

And the chairman of the Mead Village Board, Bill Thorson, said he likes what he hears about the precautions being taken to transport the waste grain to Bennington.

“It sounds and looks to me like they’re taking more precautions than they need to do,” Thorson said.

‘No’ to burying it on site

The chairman, who attended Tuesday’s night town hall in Mead held by NewFields, said he appreciated that the clean-up firm listened to local residents opposition to one option of disposing of the waste — burying it where it now sits, just south of town.

 “It definitely doesn’t belong where it’s at,” Thorson said. “We’re getting it out of here in lined landfill that is designed to take this kind of material.”

The AltEn ethanol plant has stirred controversy ever since it was revealed that it was using seed coat coated in hazardous pesticides — instead of typical field corn — to produce ethanol at its plant at Mead, a village of 626 people west of Omaha.

Neighbors complained of putrid odors emitted by the plant and expressed concern about health impacts on pets and their families prior to the facility closing in February 2021 because of repeated violations of state environmental rules.

Since then, the focus has been on how to clean up thousands of tons of waste corn left piled around the site and how to safely empty wastewater lagoons that once spilled 4 million gallons of contaminated water into a nearby stream.

‘Path of least resistance”

Not everyone is excited about the new plans.

State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, who got involved in helping concerned citizens in Mead, said Tuesday that it appears that NewFields is “taking the path of least resistance” in “moving the mess from one community to another.”

David Corbin, an official with the Sierra Club of Nebraska, who is among a group of citizens who meet weekly to monitor the cleanup, said he questions whether all the health risks associated with shipping the waste have been considered.

Among his questions: Will contaminated dust, stirred up in removing the wet cake, cause problems? What is the long-term impact of landfilling the seed corn? And might it be harmful to animals?

Residents had a lot of questions at a meeting about cleanup plans in May. Another town hall meeting in Mead was held Tuesday evening.

An official with WM (formerly Waste Management) which manages the Pheasant Point Landfill for Douglas County, said Tuesday that the landfill has an expected lifespan of 129 years, based on current waste volumes.

Lisa Disbrow of WM of Nebraska said the wet cake mixed with bentonite is considered “non-hazardous waste” that the landfill is designed to take.

Landfill lifespan over a century

Even with the additional volume of the wet cake, which will be mixed with bentonite clay to reduce its moisture and make it easier to handle, the landfill has more than a century before it will be filled up, according to Bill Butler, an Atlanta-based senior engineer/partner in NewFields.

Butler said an earlier pilot project demonstrated that the best way to reduce odors and ease handling of the wet cake is to mix it with the powdery bentonite at the AltEn site to solidify it. Then it would be  encased in plastic — like a plastic burrito — for the 24-mile trip to the landfill.

Semi trucks — estimated at about 60 per day — would haul away the waste in trailers covered with canvas tarps, Butler said.

As part of the initial test run, which will extend to Nov. 10, air quality along the route to the landfill will be tested, he said, as will the efficiency of the processing work at the AltEn site.

Butler said if all goes well, the remaining wet cake pile eventually will be processed and hauled to Pheasant Point. Work will be suspended during winter months, when the wet cake freezes, and would be resumed in March.

“We’re not talking a decade to get it done,” he said. “We’ll know more when we complete the pilot test.”

‘A lot of progress’

Removal of an estimated 100 million gallons of wastewater from lagoons on the site is also entering a new phase. A new filtration system, designed to remove more contaminants from “fine solids” in the water, just went into service, Butler said.

Last year, 49 million gallons of wastewater was treated, with about 30 million gallons being applied on nearby fields, he said.

In addition, 1,500 tons of rubbish, such as pallets and biocharred corn, was hauled away this spring, Butler said.

 The process of removing unused seed corn, stored in huge buildings on the site, is also underway.

 About 1,000 tons of unused seed corn has been hauled to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where it was burned and turned into energy, he said. About 6,675 tons are still to be transported to the Covanta facility, a process that may take four to five months, Butler said.

“A heck of a lot of progress has been made,” he said.

In February, after the Examiner reported that thousands of yards of oil-soaked soil from the Keystone pipeline spill in Kansas were trucked to the Pheasant Point landfill, some Douglas County officials expressed concerns.

Tuesday evening, Douglas County Commissioner Jim Cavanaugh, who was traveling, said he didn’t have enough information about the AltEn plans to comment. He did say that in the case of the oil spill, commissioners had limited powers to determine what could and could not be sent to the landfill.

At that time, WM officials said that the oil-soaked soil was nonhazardous waste and that the Bennington landfill was designed to take such material.

NewFields was hired by a group of seed corn companies that once sent expired seed corn to AltEn. The companies are entirely funding the cleanup.

The NewFields officials said Tuesday they did not know how much has been spent so far. In May, some estimates topped $23 million spent at that point.

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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.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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