Contaminants from AltEn plant found in more homes, streams and soil

Source: By Paul Hammel, Nebraska Examiner • Posted: Tuesday, January 31, 2023

But investigators say more research needed to determine if long-term exposure to neonicotinoids impacts health

MEAD — Residents near the closed AltEn ethanol plant were told Monday night that contaminants found in area homes were “significantly higher” than those found in houses in Omaha and another rural community, Kennard.

But investigators with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Creighton University said that more research is needed to determine if the relatively low levels of the class of pesticides called “neonicotinoids” would be harmful to human health, given long-term exposure in the area.

There is a lack of information on the impacts of such chemicals, which coated seed corn used by the AltEn plant and, after being used to produce ethanol, was spread on local fields or stacked up in giant, putrid-smelling piles around the plant.

‘Uncharted territory’

“This is uncharted territory,” Dr. Ali Khan, a public health specialist with UNMC, said of such a long-term exposure to neonicotinoids in one community.

Khan spoke after a 90-minute presentation by members of the AltEn Study Group, a collaboration of scientists from UNMC, Creighton, UNL and Three Rivers Public Health Department that was given $1 million by the State Legislature to study the impacts on the environment, wildlife and human health.

The AltEn plant was closed down two years ago after a spill of 4 million gallons of contaminated wastewater poured into a nearby stream. Contaminants, residents were told Monday, were found as far away as 6 miles.

Since then, frustrated residents have been looking for answers to many questions, including: Is our groundwater safe to drink and are some local health issues linked to the plant?

When will it be cleaned up?

A recurring question Monday night: When are the millions of gallons of wastewater and the 16-acre pile of contaminated waste corn or “wet cake” ever going to be cleaned up?

“This isn’t going to get any better until we figure out how to get rid of it,” said former State Sen. Jerry Johnson, now the mayor of Wahoo and a member of the local natural resources district board.

Steve Mayfield, a 45-year-old electrician who has lived in Mead for decades, said that despite the spraying of a cap of cement-like material on top of the wet cake last year, the putrid smell is coming back.

Drone photographs shown at the meeting showed cracks in the Posi-Shell covering, and dark patches where water had pooled. But residents were also told that the wastewater being sprayed on local fields had been treated and deemed safe.

Incineration considered

The AltEn Facility Response Group, a collaboration of seed corn companies, appears to be considering using mobile incinerators to burn up the estimated 85,000 tons of contaminated wet cake, according to a recent report by the Lincoln Journal-Star.

But Monday’s meeting focused on what investigators found since the last time a public meeting was held with residents in June. Here’s some of what was discovered:

— Losses of bees in nearby hives were higher compared to other hives maintained by UNL in Lincoln and Nebraska City. However, overwintering survival of bees in hives near the AltEn site has improved steadily since the plant closed. It was 0% in the winter of 2020-21, then 30% in 2021-22 and so far this winter, 69%.

“We’re seeing some recovery,” said Judy Wu-Smart, a UNL entomologist.

— Tests of water in a nearby stream, Johnson Creek, showed the presence of 11 neonicotinoids, but those levels have decreased since April of 2021 after the plant closed.

Still, soil core testing showed some contaminants up to 30 feet deep, just above the level of the local aquifer. Officials said they are seeking to obtain permission from landowners to test areas where wet cake was applied on fields, but have been unsuccessful so far.

Up to six miles away

— Testing of bullfrog tadpoles found neonicotinoids in a stream connected to the AltEn site six miles away. Expanded testing, closer to well fields in the Ashland area, is being pursued. Testing of songbird nests found the highest levels of pesticide residues nearest the AltEn site.

— A survey by the Centers for Disease Control in 2015-16 indicated that 49% of people had detectable levels of neonicotinoids in urine, likely as the result of eating produce.

— Testing is planned at Creighton to determine if natural bacteria can be used to remediate contaminated soil.

Capping the wet cake pile with the cement mixture has helped, but hasn’t stopped leaching of contaminants into the ground, said John Schalles, an environmental scientist from Creighton.

“It’s nasty stuff,” he said of the contaminated runoff.

— Seventy-five percent of residents who responded to a recent survey said they worry about the impact of the contaminants on local health, drinking water and the environment. Seventeen percent of households reported chronic health conditions since 2015, but only 8% thought they were related to AltEn, and another 25% were unsure.

How far have contaminants spread?

Concerns also were aired Monday about how far contaminants had spread, and whether they have impacted drinking water supplies for both Omaha and Lincoln, which both have well fields downstream from the AltEn plant near Ashland.

— Swabs at 11 homes near the AltEn plant showed levels of neonicotinoids, while similar tests at homes in Kennard, another small farming community, and Omaha, had “virtually no detectable” levels.

Yet the levels found at one Mead home — 18 parts per billion on dust inside the home, and 59  ppb on dust outside — were far below what is considered a level of concern by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, according to Dr. Eleanor Rogan of UNMC.

What is not known, she said, is whether long term exposure to low levels could cause health problems.

The main concerns, Khan said, would be to infants and pregnant women. In insects, neonicotinoids attack the central nervous system.

EPA ‘hasn’t taken them seriously’

“We’ve been looking to see if the (federal) Environmental Protection Agency has guidelines and they really don’t,” Rogan said. “I think EPA hasn’t taken them seriously, unfortunately.”

Khan said he’d like to see the state fund at least five to 10 years of health monitoring in the area, to determine if there are lingering impacts from the neonicotinoids found in the water, homes and soil around Mead. Currently funding, he said, should last only until the end of 2023.

Officials at the meeting urged local residents, especially those who might have worked at the AltEn plant, to sign up with a “medical registry” to track local health impacts.

A high participation rate is needed, they said, to help determine if the contamination has caused human health impacts.