‘How long is too long?’ — Bill would extend time residents of Mead could sue ethanol plant

Source: By Chris Dunker, Lincoln Journal Star • Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2022

After AltEn went into operation in January 2015, residents of Mead and the surrounding area started reported a wide range of health conditions doctors couldn’t explain.

Those living close to the biofuel plant developed persistent coughs, watery eyes or bloody noses, while others living downwind experienced mouth sores and uncommon infections in their digestive systems.

Many assigned the changes in their well-being to AltEn, where unplanted corn and soybean seed coated with pesticides was turned into ethanol, leaving behind solid and wastewater byproducts contaminated with high concentrations of hazardous chemicals.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska and Creighton University have launched a 10-year study to examine the long-term effects on human health and the environment stemming from AltEn’s practices.

If research links the contamination stemming from AltEn to any negative health outcomes experienced by the people living near the plant, a bill introduced in the Legislature this year would grant individuals more time to sue the plant and the seed companies that supplied it.

The bill (LB694), sponsored by Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, extends the statute of limitations for Nebraskans who fall sick after an exposure to toxic chemicals from four years to 10 years.

It would also extend the time for the family of individuals whose illness or death is linked to exposure to seek compensation.

Blood said her bill — the first of a handful introduced this year in response to the environmental and health crisis at AltEn — was meant to address what she called a “raw deal” thrust upon Mead.

“How long is too long before we pull the plug on these big companies making Nebraskans collateral damage?” Blood asked the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Friday, where the bill received a public hearing.

The neonicotinoids found in high concentrations in the wet distiller’s grain stockpiled at AltEn, as well as in the wastewater held for years in damaged lagoons, were designed to be persistent and highly mobile, Blood said.

Recent research has pegged their half-life — the time it takes for them to break down in the environment — at nearly four years, while some of the degraded products are believed to be more toxic than their parent compounds.

The ultimate health effects are far from understood, Blood said, but scientists suspect neonicotinoids could be linked to organ damage, reproductive issues and some cancers.

Janece Mollhoff, a nurse and retired Army colonel from Ashland, which is downstream from AltEn, told the Judiciary Committee that LB694 was not specifically about the village of Mead, a rogue ethanol plant or one specific chemical.

There are hundreds of thousands of artificial chemicals encompassing everything from fertilizers to flame suppressants that are easily available to consumers, Mollhoff said.

“The rapid rate at which novel chemicals are being produced compared to the snail’s pace at which governments assess risks and monitor impacts leaves society largely flying blind to chemical threats,” she said.

Extending the statute of limitations would give scientists — like those from NU and Creighton — more time to investigate the health outcomes created by exposure to potentially hazardous chemicals, Mollhoff added, and provide the individuals affected more time to seek damages.

Blood’s bill was also backed by environmental groups such as the Nebraska Sierra Club and Bold Alliance, as well as by the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys, which said it provided more time for those who fall ill to seek recompense.

The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry testified in a neutral capacity, voicing concerns about language in the bill outlining how a doctor would connect exposure to a chemical to a health condition, as well as how the legislation could be misinterpreted.

The Judiciary Committee did not take any action on the bill Friday.

Blood said she planned to make LB694 her priority bill this year, which will help its chances of reaching the full Legislature for debate.