(Updated June 10 with state regulatory announcement about seed company clean-up efforts.)
An “environmental catastrophe” unfolding in Nebraska is drawing scrutiny from around the United States and sparking questions about why regulators were unwilling or unable to rein in years of questionable activities by the company known as AltEn LLC.
AltEn has been operating an ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska, and advertising the plant site as a disposal facility for seeds coated in an array of pesticides known to be dangerous to humans and wildlife.
It has become a common practice by large seed companies such as Monsanto-owner Bayer AG, Syngenta, Corteva and others to sell seeds for growing corn, soy, wheat and other crops that are coated with neonicotinoids and other chemicals designed to help the plants fight off insects and disease.
Disposing of unwanted supplies of these treated seeds can be costly and complicated, so AltEn’s eagerness to take in the coated seed was welcomed by the seed companies. The companies say they believed AltEn would properly use and/or dispose of the seeds and they were not aware of a contamination threat.
But the concentration of pesticide-coated seeds being taken in at the AltEn site left the plant’s wastewater and byproducts such as distillers grains contaminated with an pesticides at levels much higher than what is considered safe.
Now the area’s water and soil is showing evidence of contamination.
Carol Blood, a Nebraska state senator, calls the situation an “environmental catastrophe.” Fish die-offs have been reported miles downstream from the plant and university researchers have reported the decimation of dozens of honeybee colonies, while state officials have received reports of sick and dying geese and other birds.
See this May 29, 2021 story in the Guardian.
As reported in the Guardian, the contamination has been ongoing for years. There have been accidental spills and leaks of the plant’s pesticide-laden waste, which has been stored in poorly maintained lagoons and piled into hills of a putrid lime-green mash called “wet cake.” The company had also distributed the waste to area farmers for spreading across fields as “soil conditioner.”
It was only earlier this year – after the Guardian exposed the problems – that state officials ordered the plant to close, and began clean-up efforts. In February, roughly a month after the revelations about the dangers of the AltEn plant’s practice of using pesticide-treated seeds, Nebraska state regulators ordered the plant closed.
The Nebraska Attorney General’s office sued the company in March, alleging multiple violations of environmental regulations and said there is an “ongoing threat to the environment,” because of AltEn’s actions.
Nebraska lawmakers also have now passed a bill restricting the use of pesticide-treated seeds for ethanol production.
And researchers from the University of Nebraska and from Creighton University are launching a 10-year study of the impacts of the AltEn contamination on human and environmental health.
On June 10, 2021, the state announced that a coalition of seed companies – calling themselves the AltEn Facility Response Group – has formally asked the state to allow them develop and help implement short- and long-term remediation plans for the environmental cleanup.
The concerns in Mead are but the latest example of growing global fear about the impacts of neonicotinoids.
See here some of the regulatory documents related to the controversy as well as other background materials:
May 20, 2021 Bayer to NDEE email re pipe leak
May 20, 2021 seed company letter to NDEE re cattle facility sale
May 18, 2021 Bayer email with NDEE over pipe leak report
May 17, 2021 memorandum with aerial photos of AltEn site
May 14, 2021, NDEE approves Bayer request on AltEn water movement
May 7, 2021 letter regarding pond pesticide sampling concerns
April 8 letter regarding soil sampling at Mead City Park
March 31, 2021 pond sampling results letter
Feb 14, 2021 inspection report of leak
Jan 13, 2021 EPA OPP letter to NDEE regarding pesticides in ethanol wastewater lagoons
Nov. 17, 2020, EPA OPP letter to NDEE regarding pesticides in AltEn wet cake
Analysis of wetcake distillers grains
State response to April 2018 complaints
May 2018 state response to complaints
AltEn Stop use & sell letter June 2019
State letter denying permits and discussing problems
May 2018 list of farmers where they spread the waste
July 2018 discussion of wetcake being treated seed
Sept 2020 letter re spills with photos
October 2020 letter of noncompliance
February 2013 permit application from AltEn
Aerial Photos of site taken by state
How Neonicotinoids Can Kill Bees
Trends in neonicotinoid pesticide residues in food and water in the United States, 1999-2015
Letter from health experts to EPA warning on neonicotinoids
Letter from Endocrine Society to EPA on neonicotinoids
Neonicotinoid pesticides can stay in the U.S. market, EPA says
Petition to California to regulate neonic-treated seeds
Vanishing Bees: Science, Politics and Honeybee Health (Rutgers University Press, 2017)
See photos below taken by Nebraska state investigators in May 2021 and provided to US Right to Know.