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County board signs emergency declaration for ethanol plant issues

County board signs emergency declaration for ethanol plant issues

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AltEn, an ethanol plant, is photographed on Friday in Mead. The plant has experienced a myriad of issues, the most recent being a frozen pipe burst causing materials to discharge onto surrounding properties. 

WAHOO – The Saunders County Board of Supervisors has ratified a declaration of emergency regarding the Mead ethanol plant and the risk of damage its contaminants could cause the general public.

During the regular meeting on Tuesday, the county board approved the declaration, which states that a local emergency is happening in the county as a result of AltEn’s use of treated seed corn in developing ethanol and the plant’s disposal of chemical-ridden distiller’s grain and discharge of wastewater being stored on site. 

“I cannot tell you that every family in our community has clean water to drink and every farmer’s field is not contaminated,” County Attorney Joe Dobesh said.  

District 2 Supervisor Doris Karloff made a motion to add an emergency item to the agenda during the meeting. Dobesh addressed the county board and announced that Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) declined the county’s invitation to speak at a special meeting on March 1 to inform the public of the department's findings. 

“I am extremely disappointed by that,” Dobesh said. 

The county board had announced the public event during its Feb. 16 meeting and approved a motion requesting that NDEE release all current information and testing results related to AltEn facilities to the general public. The supervisors also asked the state agency to use the March 1 meeting as an opportunity to further update the public on the situation. 

District 23 Sen. Bruce Bostelman, who has introduced a legislative bill that would prohibit the use of treated seed corn to make ethanol, was also invited to this special meeting. 

On Feb. 17, Bostelman’s LB507 was advanced from the Natural Resources Committee. Since the bill has an emergency clause, the law would go into effect immediately after it receives 30 votes from lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts’ signature. 

While Bostelman indicated he would attend the March 1 meeting, the nationally-recognized experts also planning to attend told county officials they feel uncomfortable presenting without NDEE in attendance, Dobesh said. Because of this, Dobesh made a recommendation to the county board that they suspend the meeting until NDEE agrees to meet publicly about the topic. 

“NDEE has really dropped the ball,” District 1 Supervisor Dave Lutton said. “It has been way too long that they have been investigating and not doing anything. They have set timelines, they have set everything and done nothing and now they won’t come and speak to the public.”

NDEE issued emergency orders for AltEn to cease operation on Feb. 4 and Feb. 20. AltEn has been storing byproduct of the ethanol production on its property because the company lost its soil conditioner permit in 2019. NDEE has confirmed that the byproduct has chemicals like pesticides and fungicides.

A frozen pipe connected to a digester tank also burst in the early hours of Feb. 12 releasing manure and other materials onto surrounding properties, traveling about four miles through culverts from the source. The tank held 4 million gallons. NDEE has been on site monitoring the situation along with the Environmental Protection Agency Region 7 Emergency Response Team. 

Saunders County Emergency Manager Terry Miller reported on the situation to the county board on Feb. 16. Miller said some of the waste that was released was mostly manure, despite there being no official release on the waste’s contents from NDEE. 

“It’s just a stroke of bad luck for them with everything else going on,” Miller said.

After the meeting on Tuesday, Dobesh said the county board hopes to reschedule the meeting as soon as NDEE agrees to meet and share information in a public format.

The March 2 supervisors’ meeting, which was previously cancelled because of the public meeting, will not take place.

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