Director defends Nebraska agency’s efforts to bring Mead ethanol plant into compliance

Source: By Paul Hammel, Omaha World Herald • Posted: Sunday, February 28, 2021

LINCOLN — A panel of state lawmakers had stern questions Thursday about why it took so long for a state agency to take action against a Mead ethanol plant that had been cited multiple times for violating environmental regulations.

The AltEn Ethanol plant, which uses seed corn coated in toxic chemicals to produce alcohol, has also been the subject of dozens of citizen complaints about putrid odors, health problems and potential groundwater contamination dating back at least three years.

But Jim Macy, the director of the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, defended the agency’s work, saying that it had conducted 36 inspections and issued 14 violation orders in the last 14 months and that it continues to work with AltEn to comply with regulations concerning disposal of its waste corn and the repair of torn liners in wastewater lagoons.

“We’ve spent a lot of time doing our job at this facility,” Macy said. “There’s some material that’s privileged and confidential, (but) we’re still working on trying to get compliance using all the tools we have available to us.”

The department could ask the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office to file charges and seek fines against the company, but when asked if he had ever done that, Macy deferred.

“That’s part of some confidential information I’ll be able to talk about later,” he said.

Macy appeared Thursday before the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee to give a briefing on the troubled plant, which closed earlier this month before its wastewater lagoons overflowed. Then, on Feb. 12, during frigid weather, a leak erupted in a 4-million-gallon digester tank that held manure and thin stillage, sending contaminated liquid down culverts and a stream that ultimately empties into the Memphis Lake State Recreational Area and the Platte River.

Macy said Thursday that the runoff had been stopped and that the recovery of leaked substances was “nearing an end point.” More than 1.6 million gallons of the leaked effluent had been pumped back into an emergency lagoon, he said, along with several hundred tons of affected ice and snow.

But the plant faces a Monday deadline to dispose of huge piles of distillers corn, contaminated with herbicides and pesticides, that sit at the plant — a state order issued months ago. AltEn also faces orders to repair its wastewater lagoons and dispose of the leaked fluids.

State Sen. Tim Gragert of Creighton called the 77 inspections that the Department of Environment and Energy had conducted at the AltEn plant since 2015 “not normal.” Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha asked how much the groundwater had been contaminated by the piles of corn. Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte said flatly that he wasn’t impressed with Macy’s explanations.

“How did it get this bad?” he asked.

Macy said part of the problem was that AltEn didn’t disclose, in a construction permit application in 2013, that it was switching to leftover seed corn to make ethanol. Every other ethanol plant in the state uses field corn, creating a leftover “distillers grain” that is a prized feed for cattle; AltEn’s leftover corn is classified as waste and can’t be fed to animals.

The director also said his agency lacks regulations governing the use of such coated seed corn.

Macy said it wasn’t until 2015 that a test of smokestack emissions showed something unusual. That ultimately led to orders for AltEn to stop applying its waste corn on farm fields and start sending it to a landfill. But a landfill in Butler County has refused to take the waste, creating rotting piles of corn at the ethanol plant.

Bill Thorson, the chairman of the Mead Village Board, said Thursday that while he was glad that the Department of Environment and Energy was now on-site daily and working hard to make AltEn comply, that wasn’t the case until the troubled plant made national headlines.

“It’s important that this practice stop,” Nebraska lawmakers were told Wednesday about an ethanol plant near Mead that uses pesticide-treated seed to produce fuel.

“There’s records showing that their lagoons had rips in them back in 2018, and all they did was tell them to fix ’em,” Thorson said.

He added that local residents now distrust the department and think that it has something to hide after Macy recently turned down an invitation to attend a community meeting on the issue.

On Thursday, Macy told lawmakers that he’s willing to meet with Mead residents but wanted to wait until after the emergency surrounding the leaking stillage had been resolved.

He said that much of what his agency does depends on a company being willing to do “the right thing” to comply.

“Unfortunately, you get to a point where you start building investigations that can stand up in court,” Macy said, “and that might be the focus.”