Ethanol plant near Mead ordered to shut down

Source: By Paul Hammel, Omaha World-Herald • Posted: Sunday, February 7, 2021

A troubled ethanol plant near Mead that uses chemically treated seed corn has been ordered to shut down until it can dispose of excess, contaminated wastewater generated by the facility.

On Thursday, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy issued an emergency order to AltEn, the operator of the plant, to immediately cease discharges into its wastewater lagoons, saying that the company was “likely to cause and may have already caused” pollution of the air, land and water.

The department’s order said that inspections of the ethanol plant’s three lagoons on Monday indicated that all were holding more wastewater than permitted, and that liners on two of the lagoons were badly damaged and had not been repaired, as required by a state order in 2019.

The company was ordered to come up with a plan within 30 days to dispose of the excess wastewater, which had unsafe levels of pesticides and fungicides used to coat the seed corn. In the meantime, AltEn was ordered to cease any additional discharges into the three lagoons, which average 100,000 gallons of water a day, to prevent the wastewater from overflowing the lagoons.

Messages left with officials at AltEn were not immediately returned on Friday afternoon. Previously, officials have not responded to questions, but instead provided a company statement that it is cooperating with state officials to resolve its compliance issues.

The state’s emergency order said the contaminated wastewater was “known to leach and may contaminate groundwater.” It added that based on the “high levels detected,” the wastewater could harm bees, birds and animals.

In September 2019, the state environment agency first ordered AltEn to halt disposing of the wastewater on farm fields due to the high levels of contamination.

The Mead plant has been the subject of complaints for at least two years. Unlike other ethanol plants, the AltEn facility uses leftover seed corn, which has been coated in pesticides and fungicides. The leftover grain remains contaminated with the chemicals, and the state has halted the ground application of the leftovers and required the company to dispose of it in a licensed landfill or incinerator.

But the leftover grain has instead piled up at the AltEn facility, causing complaints by residents of Mead about rancid odors and health problems, as well as concerns about groundwater contamination and the death of nearby bee colonies.

The facility has been given until March 1 by the state to remove the huge piles of leftover grain. In the meantime, the Nebraska Legislature is considering a bill to ban the use of treated seed corn in the production of ethanol.