MEAD – They’ve been given the runaround and ignored.
They’ve been isolated in a situation they have no control over.
They’ve been loud, really loud, but no one has listened to the complaints. Complaints about an “indescribable” stench, burning eyes, pets suddenly getting violently sick, entire bee colonies dying and color and smell of tap water.
The people of Mead are getting that moment in the sun. Between the University of Nebraska Medical Center environment, wildlife and health effects study and the first-of-its-kind ethanol production legislation, solutions are coming – but is it too late?
In one week, two separate town hall meetings were held with the intention of spreading information and figuring out solutions for the AltEn ethanol plant situation. What’s been consistent since The Guardian article released in January is that AltEn isn’t just any ethanol plant.
It was one of only two plants in the United States to use treated seed corn ridden with fungicides and pesticides, ultimately creating severely poisonous byproducts such as wastewater and wet cake, also known as distiller’s grain. Potentially millions of pounds of distiller’s grains and millions of gallons wastewater were being inadequately stored on AltEn’s property.
The most recent meeting occurred on Monday evening at Evangelical Covenant Church in Mead. Moderator and former Nebraska State Sen. Al Davis acted as moderator guiding the event.
The meeting was sponsored by several different organizations including Bold Nebraska, Nebraska Sierra Club and concerned citizens of Mead. Locals like Jody Weible and Paula Dyas spoke of their experience with AltEn.
“I think it›s bad for the environment, bad for wildlife and bad for people,” Dyas said.
Retired investigative journalist and author Leesa Zalesky gave a brief history and extensive research of AltEn.
“I was given five minutes to give a 20-year history,” Zalesky said.
Zalesky described the corporate structure as “complicated and convoluted,” and explained that the Village of Mead provided all the things the company needed to produce ethanol, at least in the original structure plan, including a feedlot to supply manure, anaerobic digesters and access to about 11 million bushels of corn and transportation.
AltEn is a part of “a maze of LLCs,” Zalesky said, leading back to Dennis Langley of Shawnee, Kan. The names include Langley Group, Management Resources Group, Easter, Energy and Environment, E3 BioFuels and now AltEn and GreenCycles.
Zalesky said the original name of AltEn was E3 BioFuels, which in its original plan never included utilizing treated seed corn. The Village of Mead utilized Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to fund part of the construction plan, but ultimately had to annex about 252.95 acres for the plant, part of that belonging to Mead Cattle Company.
While at first it appeared to supplement the local economy, E3 BioFuels went bankrupt in 2007. In 2010, Zalesky said, E3 BioFuels essentially reorganized and changed its name to AltEn.
In fall 2014, Tanner Shaw, Langley’s step son, requested building permits for a pair of 1 million bushel grain storage warehouses and was approved from the Mead Village Board of Trustees. Zalesky said Shaw mentioned to the village board that the plant would open soon and would process corn and milo, with no mention of treated seed corn.
Shortly after AltEn began operations in 2015, the village began receiving complaints about the stench wafting from the plant, nosebleeds, coughs and other respiratory issues. The village also began receiving complaints about the smell and color of their tap water.
These complaints resulted in the village reaching out to the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE).
“NDEE was informed as early as mid-2015 about the treated seed corn being processed at the plant,” Zalesky said.
Skip forward to 2020, when AltEn sent out an email to North American seed manufacturers asking for their treated seed corn at no cost.
“The AltEn email stated that the plant was receiving 98% of all discarded seeds in North America, and that the plant was under contract by all major seed producers,” Zalesky said.
This would include Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta, to name a few of the at least 100 others AltEn did not specify. They informed seed manufacturers that they would dispose of all treated and non-treated seed.
Zalesky reported that she found AltEn is delinquent on its property taxes for both 2018 and 2019 according to Nebraska Taxes Online. The plant received $210,084 in COVID relief in November 2020.
The audience, numbering about 30 people, then heard from Ashland’s Janece Molhoff who discussed NDEE’s knowledge of AltEn’s process and the “little action” that was taken by NDEE when it came to testing the wet cake and wastewater stored on the plant.
Creighton University’s Dr. John Schalles also spoke about the potential waterways the contaminants could have already traveled through. He highlighted how the March 2019 floods could have encouraged that spread two years ago.
Attorney Dave Domina of Domina Law Group spoke briefly with the crowd, ultimately encouraging them to keep complaining and continue writing and calling their government representatives.
UNL Extension and Research Entomologist Dr. Judy Wu-Smart spoke about her findings of possible systematic pesticide pollution causing insects that are imperative to the ecosystem to become lethargic and vulnerable to prey after losing several hives of bees at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center (ENREC).
“Despite the unfortunate circumstances that brought us all here, I›ve really enjoyed working and I want to thank the community leaders and the sponsors who put this on,” Wu-Smart said. “It›s been a privilege engaging with these really committed citizens.”
Wu-Smart also spoke on April 6 in a virtual town hall meeting hosted by UNMC to spread awareness about the study the College of Public Health plans to conduct in the Mead area.
The study will focus on the environment, local wildlife and potential health effects in humans that AltEn’s production process has caused. It is being led by UNMC Department of Environmental, Agricultural and Occupational Health Department Chair Dr. Elli Rogan.
The remainder of the team includes several representatives from UNMC like Project Advisor Dr. Ali Khan, Dr. Brandon Grimm, who will focus on community engagement, Dr. Chandran Achutan, who is looking at the air and dust part of the study and Dr. Jesse Bell, who will be leading the human health survey and hospital records.
There are University of Nebraska-Lincoln representatives such as Wu-Smart who has been dealing with issues with the bees she studies at the ENREC that have resulted from AltEn’s practices.
UNL’s Liz VanWormer will be overseeing the animal surveillance portion of the study including pets, local wildlife and production animals. Shannon Bartelt-Hunt will look at surface, groundwater and soil sampling, and Dr. Dan Snow, overseeing UNL’s Water Sciences Laboratory, will help to analyze sampling.
Both from Creighton University, Schalles will be the study’s ecotoxicologist and Dr. Pierce Greenberg will look at GIS.
Two more local representatives on the project team include Three Rivers Health Department Executive Director Terra Uhing and Saunders Medical Center’s Dr. Hank Newburn.
Rogan estimated that the project cost will likely be $10 million for 10 years, which is why they are pushing for more donations similar to a $200,000 contribution from Dr. Anne Hubbard for seed money to get the study off the ground. Donations can be made at https://fundraise.nufoundation.org/campaign/mead-ne-health-and-environmental-campaign/c333090.
Sampling is scheduled to begin this April and continue through June, according to the proposed timeline. In May, the survey and health record analysis will start with the health records continuing into June. The proposed schedule states they hope to host another town hall meeting in August to report their findings from over the summer.
In an interview prior to this meeting, Rogan spoke with the Wahoo Newspaper about the importance of transparency in a major study like this.
“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.”
The recording from this meeting and the location for all information related to the study can be found at www.unmc.edu/publichealth/departments/environmental/mead/.