“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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Keeping Secrets From Consumers: Labeling Law a Win for Industry-Academic Collaborations

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You’ve heard the mantra over and over – there are no safety concerns associated with genetically engineered crops. That refrain, music to agrichemical and biotech seed industry ears, has been sung repeatedly by U.S. lawmakers who have just passed a national law that allows companies to avoid stating on food packages if those products contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Sen. Pat Roberts, who shepherded the law through the Senate, dismissed both consumer concerns and research that has fed fears about potential health risks related to genetically engineered crops, in lobbying on behalf of the bill.

“Science has proven again and again that the use of agriculture biotechnology is 100 percent safe,” Roberts declared on the Senate floor on July 7 before bill passed. The House then approved the measure on July 14 in a 306-117 vote.

Under the new law, which now heads to President Obama’s desk, state laws mandating GMO labeling are nullified, and food companies need not clearly tell consumers if foods contain genetically engineered ingredients; instead they can put codes or website addresses on products that consumers must access for the ingredient information. The law intentionally makes it difficult for consumers to gain the information. Lawmakers like Roberts say it’s okay to cloud the issues for consumers because GMOs are so safe.

But many consumers have fought for years for foods to be labeled for GMO content precisely because they do not accept the safety claims. Evidence of corporate influence over many in the scientific community who tout GMO safety has made it difficult for consumers to know who to trust and what to believe about GMOs.

“The ‘science’ has become politicized and focused on serving markets,” said Pamm Larry, director of the LabelGMOs consumer group. “The industry controls the narrative, at least at the political level.” Larry and other pro-labeling groups say there are many studies indicating that GMOs can have harmful impacts.

This week, the French newspaper Le Monde added fresh reason for skepticism about GMO safety claims when it unveiled details of University of Nebraska professor Richard Goodman’s work to defend and promote GMO crops while Goodman was receiving funding from top global GMO crop developer Monsanto Co. and other biotech crop and chemical companies. Email communications obtained through Freedom of Information requests show Goodman consulting with Monsanto frequently on efforts to turn back mandatory GMO labeling efforts and mitigate GMO safety concerns as Goodman conducted “scientific outreach and consulting on GM safety” in the United States, Asia and the European Union.

Goodman is but one of many public university scientists engaged in such work. Similar collaborations have been revealed recently involving public scientists at several universities, including the University of Florida and the University of Illinois. Cumulatively, the relationships underscore how Monsanto and other industry players exercise influence in the scientific arena of GMOs and pesticides to push points that protect their profits.

In its examination of those concerns, the Le Monde article shines a light on how Goodman, who worked at Monsanto for seven years before moving to the public university in 2004, came to be named associate editor of the scientific journal Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT) to oversee GMO-related research reports. Goodman’s naming to the FCT editorial board came shortly after the journal angered Monsanto with the 2012 publication of a study by French biologist Gilles-Eric Séralini that found GMOs and Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide could trigger worrisome tumors in rats. After Goodman joined the FCT editorial board the journal retracted the study in 2013. (It was later republished in a separate journal.) Critics at the time alleged the retraction was tied to Goodman’s appointment to the journal’s editorial board. Goodman denied any involvement in the retraction, and resigned from FCT in January 2015.

The Le Monde report cited email communications obtained by the U.S. consumer advocacy group U.S. Right to Know (which I work for). The emails obtained by the organization show Goodman communicating with Monsanto about how best to criticize the Séralini study shortly after it was released “pre-print” in September 2012. In a Sept. 19, 2012 email, Goodman wrote to Monsanto toxicologist Bruce Hammond: “When you guys have some talking points, or bullet analysis, I would appreciate it.”

Emails also show that FCT Editor in Chief Wallace Hayes said Goodman started serving as associate editor for FCT by Nov. 2, 2012, the same month the Séralini study was published in print, even though Goodman was later quoted saying that he was not asked to join FCT until January 2013. In that email, Hayes asked Monsanto’s Hammond to act as a reviewer for certain manuscripts submitted to the journal. Hayes said the request for Hammond’s help was also “on behalf of Professor Goodman.”

The email communications show numerous interactions between Monsanto officials and Goodman as Goodman worked to deflect various criticisms of GMOs. The emails cover a range of topics, including Goodman’s request for Monsanto’s input on a Sri Lankan study submitted to FCT; his opposition to another study that found harmful impacts from a Monsanto GMO corn; and project funding from Monsanto and other biotech crop companies that makes up roughly half of Goodman’s salary.

Indeed, an October 2012 email exchange shows that around the time Goodman was signing on to the FCT journal and criticizing the Seralini study, Goodman was also expressing concern to his industry funders about protecting his income stream as a “soft-money professor.”

In an October 6, 2014 email, Goodman wrote to Monsanto Food Safety Scientific Affairs Lead John Vicini to say that he was reviewing an “anti-paper” and hoped for some guidance. The paper in question cited a 2014 report from Sri Lanka about a “possible exposure/correlation and a proposed mechanism for glyphosate toxicity related to kidney disease.” Glyphosate is the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and is used on Roundup Ready genetically engineered crops. The World Health Organization in 2015 said glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen after several scientific studies linked it to cancer. But Monsanto maintains glyphosate is safe.

In the email to Vicini, Goodman said he did not have the expertise needed and asked for Monsanto to provide “some sound scientific arguments for why this is or is not plausible.”

The emails show other examples of Goodman’s deference to Monsanto. As the Le Monde article points out, In May 2012, after the publication of certain comments by Goodman in an article on a website affiliate with the celebrity Oprah Winfrey, Goodman is confronted by a Monsanto official for “leaving a reader thinking that we really don’t know enough about these products to say if they are ‘safe.’” Goodman then wrote to individuals at Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, BASF and Dow and Bayer and apologized “to you and all of your companies,” saying he was misquoted and misunderstood.

Later in one July 30, 2012 email, Goodman notified officials at Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont, Syngenta and BASF that he has been asked to do an interview with National Public Radio about whether or not there is a relationship between GMO crops and increasing food allergies. In an Aug 1, 2012 reply, an official at Bayer offered him free “media training” before his interview.

The emails also show Goodman’s collaborative work with Monsanto to try to defeat GMO labeling efforts. In one October 25, 2014 email to Monsanto chief of global scientific affairs Eric Sachs and Vicini, Goodman suggests some “concepts and ideas” for advertisements that can educate “consumers/voters.” He wrote that it was important to convey the “complexity of our food supplies” and how mandatory labeling could add to costs if companies responded by sourcing more non-GMO commodities. He wrote of the importance of conveying those ideas to the Senate and the House, and his hope that “the labeling campaigns fail.”

The emails also make clear that Goodman depends heavily on financial support from St. Louis-based Monsanto and other biotech agricultural companies who provide funding for an “Allergen Database” overseen by Goodman and run through the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska. A look at the sponsorship agreement for the allergen database for 2013 showed that each of six sponsoring companies were to pay roughly $51,000 for a total budget of $308,154 for that year. Each sponsor then can “contribute their knowledge to this important process,” the agreement stated. From 2004-2015, along with Monsanto, the sponsoring companies included Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Bayer CropScience and BASF. One 2012 invoice to Monsanto for the Food Allergen Database requested payment of $38,666.50.

The purpose of the database is aimed at “assessing the safety of proteins that may be introduced into foods through genetic engineering or through food processing methods.” The potential for unintended allergens in some genetically engineered foods is one of the common fears expressed by consumer groups and some health and medical experts.

In comments on the House floor, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said the QR codes were a gift to a food industry seeking to hide information from consumers. The law is “not what’s in the interest of the American consumer, but what a few special interests want,” he said. “Every American has a fundamental right to know what’s in the food they eat.”

Goodman, Monsanto and others in the biotech ag industry can celebrate their win in Congress but the new labeling law is likely to only breed more consumer skepticism about GMOs given the fact that it negates the type of transparency consumers seek – just a few simple words if a product is “made with genetic engineering.”

Hiding behind a QR code does not inspire confidence.