“Environmental catastrophe” in Nebraska tied to pesticide-contaminating plant; See regulatory docs on AltEn neonicotinoid problems

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(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

Wastewater analysis 

April 2018 citizen complaint

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.

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Neonicotinoids: a growing concern

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On January 10, The Guardian published this story about a small rural Nebraska community that has been struggling for at least two years with contamination tied to neonicotinoid-coated corn seed. The source is an area ethanol plant that has been marketing itself as a free “recycling” location for seed companies such as Bayer, Syngenta and others who needed a place to get rid of excess supplies of these pesticide-treated seed stocks. The result, the townspeople say, is a landscape laced with stunningly high levels of neonicotinoid residues, which they say have triggered illnesses in both humans and animals. They fear their land and water are now irreparably contaminated.

State environmental officials have recorded levels of the neonicotinoids at a staggering 427,000 parts per billion (ppb) in testing of one of the large hills of waste on the site of the ethanol plant property. That compares to regulatory benchmarks saying levels must be under 70 ppb to be considered safe.

See this page for more details and documents.

The tale of the toll on the community in Mead, Nebraska, is but the latest sign that state and federal regulatory oversight of neonicotinoids needs to be strengthened, according to environmental advocates and researchers from several U.S. universities.

Most widely used insecticides

The controversy over the class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids, or neonics, has been growing in recent years and has become a global conflict between the corporate behemoths that sell neonics and environmental and consumer groups who say the insecticides are responsible for extensive environmental and human health harm.

Since being introduced in the 1990s, neonicotinoids have become the world’s most widely used class of insecticides, sold in at least 120 countries to help control damaging insects and protect agricultural production. The insecticides are not only sprayed on plants but also coated on seeds. Neonicotinoids are used in producing many types of crops, including rice, cotton, corn, potatoes and soybeans. As of 2014, neonicotinoids represented more than 25 percent of the global pesticide market, according to researchers.

Within the class, clothianidin and imidacloprid are the most commonly used in the United States, according to a 2019 paper published in the journal Environmental Health.

In January 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency released a proposed interim decisions for acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam, specific insecticides within the neonicotinoid class. The EPA said it was working to reduce the amount used on crops associated with “potential ecological risks,” restricting when the pesticides could be applied to blooming crops.

Tied to bee deaths

A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that neonicotinoids are a factor in the widespread colony collapse disorder of bees, which are essential pollinators in food production. They are also seen as at least partly to blame for an “insect apocalypse. The insecticides have also been tied to serious defects in white-tailed deer, deepening concerns over the chemical’s potential to harm large mammals, including people.

The European Union banned the outdoor use of neonics clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam in 2018, and the United Nations says neonics are so hazardous that they should be “severely” restricted. But in the United States, neonics remain widely used.