MEAD – Like many people throughout the state, Dr. Elli Rogan initially learned about the problematic ethanol plant Mead residents have been dealing with for years when “The Guardian,” a British news site, broke the story in January of this year.
Now, the University of Nebraska Medical Center Department of Environmental, Agricultural and Occupational Health Department chair will be leading a comprehensive study with the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) on the area of Mead as a result of AltEn’s potential effect on Mead residents, wildlife and environment.
Results from the study can be found on an information website that UNMC will launch for the general public. Rogan said there’s no reason to keep information from the community and it’s fundamental to public health.
“I think transparency is important because we›re talking about people›s lives and their livelihoods and a lot of things they care about,” Rogan said. “I think it›s very important that you give people information and so that they can make well informed decisions.”
Rogan estimates initial results from the study could be accessible as early as the fall.
“We are really pushing this work, at least this initial work, done and get information out to the community,” Rogan said.
The project is currently still in the planning phase, but Rogan estimates it will begin after they are able to host a town hall meeting on April 6 at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom which will be organized with Three Rivers Public Health Department. The Zoom link is https://unmc.zoom.us/j/93785417513?pwd=ZzZtRVJYMVpTamRLZDJWcnFKUVE1Zz09 and will include an overview of the environmental hazard and evaluation and assessment project as well as an introduction to the project team and budget and timeline.
Three Rivers Health Department Director Terra Uhing, UNMC College of Public Health Dean Ali Khan and Rogan will all be in attendance.
AltEn has been in operation in Mead since 2015. The production process the plant conducts utilizes treated seed corn which creates distillers grains and wastewater. Because treated seed corn is used in the process, the byproducts have high chemical contents.
On March 25, Nebraska lawmakers advanced with a vote of 43-0 Legislative Bill 507 which prohibits the use of all treated seed corn. Because of the emergency clause, the law will go into effect when it has gained a signature from Gov. Pete Ricketts ultimately stopping the plant’s production system.
The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy has been on site throughout February and March to oversee the cleanup process. NDEE recently released results from their own sampling of public water wells which showed “non-detectable (ND) levels of neonicotinoids, strobins, and azoles were found.” ND refers to “not detected above the limit of quantification,” according to the results.
The UNMC study will start with the sampling of water, soil and air after the town hall meeting, Rogan said. With these samples UNMC will analyze them for insecticides and fungicides which are known to be in the seed corn coating. One goal of the study is to see if the contaminants traveled by water.
“Assuming that we find relevant contaminants in the water, we want to see how far they get,” Rogan said.
Another part of the study is looking into how wildlife has been affected by the ethanol plant. Elizabeth VanWormer of the University of Nebraska Lincoln School of Natural Resources will be leading the wildlife portion of the study. Some of the wildlife they will look into include natural inhabitants of the area, pets and farm production animals, Rogan said.
VanWormer said the study is still working on securing local partners for wildlife sampling.
“We are still in the process of developing the animal health studies and connecting with local partners for sampling,” VanWormer said. “We are looking into the potential for monitoring cattle, dogs, and wildlife including frogs, birds and small mammals.”
The third portion of the study which Rogan described as “the very important part” is monitoring any potential health effects in the adult residents of Mead. Rogan said they plan to take blood and urine samples from willing participants.
“This would be people who think that by living in the area around the plant, they’ve gotten sick with something or defective something for them negatively,” Rogan said.
In summer of 2018, the distillers grains created at AltEn were used by farmers for soil conditioner which caused an array of side effects for the residents living around the farm ground. This act caused AltEn to lose their soil conditioner permit. Rogan said they plan to reach out to those who were affected by the byproduct being spread on farmland near them to also be surveyed and monitored.
The study will also look into local hospital reports to see if any adverse health effects bubbles have developed. A portion of the human part of the study will be setting up a registry so UNMC can monitor participants for years to come.
Recently, the study received a donation from Dr. Anne Hubbard for $200,000 to seed a crowdfunding campaign, University of Nebraska Foundation Marketing Communications Vice President Dorothy Endacott said.
“Anne believes this is an urgent issue and her hope is that others will match her gift so an immediate environmental assessment can be conducted,” Endacott said.
Information on the campaign can be found at nufoundation.org/mead.
Depending on funding, Rogan said they hope to continue the study “over a period of several years” and estimates the registry will also continue for a number of years.