ASHLAND – The Ashland City Council its lending support to an effort to force an ethanol plant in Mead to clean up its mess.
At its regular meeting last Thursday, the council voted to authorize the mayor to send a letter to the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) expressing concern over environmental issues related to the use of treated seed corn laced with pesticides at the AltEn ethanol plant, located along County Road 10 between County Roads J and K.
Former Council Member Janece Mollhoff requested as a private citizen that the council take a position on the issue in an effort to protect the city’s water source. She said it is important to have an uncontaminated water source to promote economic and residential growth in Ashland.
“This is not the kind of attention we need for the growth of our community,” she said.
Caleb Fjone, the new executive director for the Ashland Area Economic Development Corporation, said Ashland’s future could be tainted by the situation in Mead.
“It’s not a good look for Ashland,” he said.
Mollhoff explained that the plant uses treated seed corn that was left over after harvest to make ethanol. After the ethanol process is complete, a byproduct called distiller’s grain is produced. Distiller’s grain is normally used as a soil conditioner or as livestock feed. But because the byproduct from the AltEn plant is laced with pesticides, the state has prohibited the use of its distiller’s grain on fields.
Huge piles of the distiller’s grain, colored green from the pesticides, sit on the AltEn property near several hundred residents living in Mead. Residents report not only horrific odor from the byproduct, but also indicate that health issues in humans and animals have arisen as a result.
Mollhoff said there are 16 different pesticides that measured at extremely high levels in the distiller’s grain and in the runoff water that is stored in lagoons on the property. This contaminated water threaten the groundwater, soil, streams and wildlife in the area, she said. In the case of at least one chemical, it is 6,000 times higher than the allowed amount, she said.
There is also unprocessed seed corn treated with pesticides stored in Quonset huts on the property, Mollhoff said.
“They’re still actually generating more waste,” she said.
Mollhoff noted that the Mead area already has a Superfund cleanup effort underway at the former Nebraska Ordnance Plant, where multiple chemicals leached into the groundwater from a World War II bomb factory in the 1940s and solvents used to clean Atlas missiles housed there during the Cold War. The US Army Corps of Engineers has been working for several years on an elaborate process to clean the groundwater, which will continue for decades to come.
Many fear that AltEn will file bankruptcy and leave the government to clean it up too.
“This will be one more Superfund site if AltEn abandons it,” Mollhoff said.
The underground aquifer that supplies water to Ashland travels from the Mead area. While the plume of contamination created by the former ordnance plant is heading Ashland’s way, it will take decades to reach the city’s water supply if it is not contained by then, which is the aim of the cleanup effort.
Even though it could be decades before the effect of the AltEn contamination reaches the area, that doesn’t mean that Ashland shouldn’t be concerned, Mollhof said.
“Everything that comes this way from Mead is a bigger worry right now,” she added.
State Sen. Bruce Bostelman recently introduced LB507 to prohibit the use of treated seed corn in ethanol development, with an emergency clause that would allow the law to go into effect immediately. A public hearing was held Thursday on the bill.
After the public hearing, the NDEE issued an emergency order stopping AltEn from depositing any more runoff from the byproduct into its lagoons after it failed an inspection on Feb. 1. The plant’s operators must submit a plan within 30 days showing how it will dispose of the wastewater and ensure the lagoons are up to code.
While Mollhoff said she is happy with the introduction of LB507, she noted that the bill doesn’t address the piles of contaminated distiller’s grain and toxic runoff. As a result, the council opted not to simply to support LB507, but to address concerns about the environmental issues.
Mollhoff said she and other opponents of the plant’s current operations want the governor to direct the NDEE to close the plant, make sure no more contamination occurs and safely remove and dispose of the contaminated distiller’s grain. They also ask that the NDEE enforce immediate correctional actions by levying fines against AltEn and that no extensions be granted to the plant’s owners for clean up.
“Help us to keep it on the governor’s radar so it doesn’t get lost,” she told the council.
Council Member Chuck Niemeyer agreed that the state needs to be involved because the NDEE was one of the authorities that gave AltEn a permit to operate, along with the Village of Mead.
AltEn’s track record in complying with state orders isn’t good, however. In 2019 the state Department of Agriculture stopped AltEn from using its distiller’s grain as soil conditioner and required the company to remove the piles by March 1, 2021. The deadline is just a few weeks away, but after more than a year the majority of the piles remain.
The council discussed drafting a resolution that would be voted on during the Feb. 18 meeting, but realized time was a factor. Instead, they opted to authorize the mayor to sign a letter immediately in order to more quickly express the city’s concerns.