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Environmental cleanup at AltEn shows progress

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MEAD – Work to stabilize the troubled AltEn plant for the winter is ongoing as the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy continues its review of a plan for cleaning up the biofuel operation that turned pesticide-treated seeds into ethanol.

The state completed its review of the 111-page plan before Christmas and returned it with comments to the AltEn Facility Response Group, a coalition of six seed industry giants that have taken responsibility for cleaning up the facility near Mead.

The public will get a chance to weigh in on the plan, but it›s unclear when. A public hearing date has not been set.

Meanwhile, work to prepare the site for the cold and snowy conditions of a Nebraska winter is continuing, the Department of Environment and Energy said in a Dec. 28 video posted to its YouTube channel.

“Our staff are on site at least three times a week monitoring conditions and site activities,” Department of Environment and Energy Director Jim Macy said in the video.

Under the direction of NewFields, an environmental engineering and construction firm with its headquarters in Georgia, solids from an emergency lagoon have been removed and its synthetic liner has been repaired.

The emergency lagoon will be used to contain pesticide-laden thin stillage – a liquid byproduct of ethanol manufacturing – as well as manure and storm water from the twin digester tanks.

One of the two tanks burst during the February 2021 cold snap, releasing an estimated 4 million gallons of pesticide-contaminated slurry downstream, prompting emergency action from the state.

Tom Buell, division administrator for monitoring and remediation, said the relined emergency lagoon will ensure the liquids drained from the digesters are safely contained for the winter months, and will be closely watched to ensure they don’t exceed capacity.

The solids from the emergency lagoon were added to the wet cake pile on the northwest corner of the property, Buell said, where material from three separate wet cake piles was consolidated.

Over the next several weeks, work will be done to cover the wet cake pile with Posi-Shell, a mineral mortar

similar to stucco made by LSC Environmental Products – material NewFields said could protect the pile until its disposal is complete.

Posi-Shell is applied as a spray and has been used to cover landfills, as erosion control, to contain airborne toxins after a wildfire, and at the World Trade Center following the Sept. 11 attacks.

According to the plan submitted by the AltEn Facility Response Group, the cover is expected to reduce odor from the rotting wet cake and minimize contact with stormwater, which previously has entered waterways running away from the site.

The plan also calls for installing a drainage system underneath the massive pile, which is expected to contain enough material to cover a football field at a depth of 150 feet, to collect any rain or snow that comes into contact with the pesticide-laden wet cake.

The wastewater collected by the drainage system will be pumped into the lagoons on the property until it can be treated, according to the plan.

In the YouTube video, Buell said work is also continuing on a new “treated water” lagoon system that will replace six temporary tanks that are currently holding 13 million gallons of treated wastewater.

Now under construction, the new lagoon system will be capable of holding as much as 52 million gallons of treated wastewater.

From there, according to documents available on the Environment Department’s website, the treated wastewater will likely be spread by irrigation systems onto selected fields near AltEn.

“The utilization of the treated water in these situations would allow uptake of the nutrients present in the water by corn or other vegetation,” a Dec. 10 proposal by NewFields states, “while placing any pesticide residues into an agricultural system where the pesticide active ingredients have registrations for comparable uses.”

The AltEn Facility Response Group is already in negotiations with landowners who live inside a 3-mile radius of the ethanol plant, the proposal states, with the seed companies indicating they would work with agronomists to monitor the rate of land application.

The seed companies have also proposed discharging the treated wastewater into the Platte River east of Yutan or Salt Creek near Ashland.

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