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 last-minute amendment adopted Thursday will devote $1 million toward continuing research into the health, environmental and ecological impacts of contamination caused by the AltEn ethanol plant.
A team of scientists, doctors and an engineer, volunteering their time and using donated funds for tests, has been studying the impacts of the pesticide-laced seed corn, used by the Mead plant to produce ethanol, and the 250,000 cubic yards of reeking byproduct left behind.
But State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue said funding for the team’s health, soil and water tests will run out in June.
She pleaded with fellow lawmakers to “show compassion” and finance work to determine whether there are long-term health and environmental impacts.
“Continuing this research is critical for the people who reside there,” Blood said. “People have a right to be safe and be well.”
She said the health risks were particularly acute for women who are pregnant.
‘It’s our duty’
“It’s our duty to protect the possibly poisoned animals, our citizens and the insects by funding this research,” Blood said.
The amendment was ultimately attached to a bill dealing with training of behavioral health professionals on a 31-6 vote.
The amendment had to overcome a ruling by the presiding officer, inspired by a challenge by Bayard Sen. Steve Erdman, that the matter was not germane to Legislative Bill 1068.
Blood argued that it was germane because both her amendment and LB 1068 directed the University of Nebraska to oversee activities. The team doing the AltEn work includes researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Creighton University, which have donated their time because of the environmental crisis, the senator said.
‘Rotten egg’ smell
A spill of wastewater a year ago carried contaminants several miles downstream from the AltEn plant. Residents have also expressed concerns about possible impacts on well fields that supply drinking water to Omaha and Lincoln.
Recently, a spray-on shell of concrete and plastic was applied to the piles of waste grain, which Blood said used to smell like a mixture of “rotten eggs and dead animals.”
Blood, who has been active in helping Mead residents and is running for the Democratic nomination for governor, had asked for $10 million to continue the studies for seven years. But she said that request wasn’t going to happen.
The underlying bill, sponsored by Gering Sen. John Stinner, increases funding for internships in rural areas for mental health practitioners in hopes of increasing behavioral health care outside of urban areas.
Stinner said 95% of the counties in the state are recognized as a “behavioral health shortage area,” with rural counties having only three psychiatrists and psychologists per 100,000 residents, about one-fourth of the rate in urban areas.
Under LB 1068, funding for the so-called BHECON (Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska) program, begun in 2009, will increase from $2.4 million a year to $5 million. That, Stinner said, will allow the internships to expand into all six behavioral health regions of the state.
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