Mead Ethanol Plant Cleanup Ongoing

Source: By Todd Neeley, DTN Staff Reporter • Posted: Monday, May 31, 2021

A Look Inside Seed Companies’ Battle to Clean Up Contaminated Ethanol Plant

Seed companies managing the environmental cleanup of an idled pesticide-contaminated ethanol plant in Nebraska fought to get a nearby feedlot to assist in the cleanup. (DTN image by Chris Clayton and Nick Scalise)
Seed companies managing the environmental cleanup of an idled pesticide-contaminated ethanol plant in Nebraska fought to get a nearby feedlot to assist in the cleanup. (DTN image by Chris Clayton and Nick Scalise)

LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) — A group of seed and agrichemical companies have mostly taken over cleanup and remediation efforts from the state of Nebraska for an ethanol plant contaminated with their pesticides after the plant mishandled treated corn seed disposal.

While the state and EPA stand back, these companies are searching for nearby outlets for the contaminated wastewater, as well as seeking new partners in the cleanup. Specifically, the companies were fighting to involve a feedlot adjacent to the now-idled AltEn LLC ethanol plant in Mead in the cleanup effort.

Over the objections of seed companies, the Saunders County Board of Supervisors earlier this week granted a conditional use permit to allow for the sale of the Mead Cattle Company to Texas-based Champion Feeders.

Letters obtained by DTN show two companies, Corteva Agriscience and Syngenta, raised objections to the permit.

Those companies suggested the 30,000-head feedlot should share in environmental cleanup costs. Although it did not participate in the communication, email communications with the state obtained by DTN also show that Bayer has been leading remediation efforts at the ethanol-plant site.

AltEn, a 24-million-gallon ethanol plant, remains idle and is facing a lawsuit from the state.

The AltEn experience has raised concerns about how discarded seed corn is handled and whether more regulation is needed. For years the company used treated seed corn to produce ethanol, was unable to feed the distillers grains to animals and instead applied it to farm ground or stored it on their property improperly.

Most recently, millions of gallons of contaminated water from the plant spilled on Feb. 12 and Feb. 13, 2021, and 84,000 tons of distillers grains from treated corn seed remain piled on its property.

Seed companies continue to look for ways to empty contaminated water from the plant’s lagoons. The companies have been exploring the possibility of either land applying or storing lagoon water in large tanks near the site.

Pesticides from this waste have been found in surface water miles away from the plant, and scientists at a nearby university research center have documented bee kills and other environmental problems from the pollution.

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SEED COMPANIES’ REQUEST

In a letter to local and state government officials on May 20, 2021, attorneys for the seed companies said that since Mead Cattle shared some infrastructure with the ethanol plant, then the feedlot should share in the cleanup costs. The attorneys signing the letter are Tom Langel, corporate counsel for Corteva and Krishna Ramaraju, assistant general counsel for Sygenta Seeds, LLC.

“The Mead Cattle facility operated in tandem with AltEn’s ethanol-production operations and supplied a considerable amount of manure to AltEn’s manure digester, which ruptured this spring and caused a release of manure and wastewater, giving rise to many of the cleanup efforts currently underway,” the attorneys said in the letter.

“Much of the material recovered following the digester spill that occurred in February of 2021 remains untreated on the AltEn site. In addition, a second digester located at the AltEn site contains substantial quantities of raw manure from Mead Cattle. The treatment and disposal (including future liability) of this material should be the responsibility of Mead Cattle. Mead Cattle’s permitting provides for expected flows to AltEn’s methane digester.”

The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy did not respond to DTN’s request for an interview this week.

Seed companies involved have declined to be interviewed about the situation in Mead, which is about 20 minutes west of the Omaha metro area.

The attorneys also point to manure-flow records that are purported to show Mead Cattle contributed manure to the ethanol plant.

“These loading rates and flows explain the elevated nutrient levels observed in the AltEn wastewater lagoons currently being dewatered by contractors engaged by the seed companies,” the letter said.

“These nutrients greatly complicate the treatment and disposal options for the wastewater at the site. What is clear from information currently available, however, is that the overall costs for treatment of the AltEn wastewater are elevated, and disposal options are limited, as the result of the nutrient loadings from the cattle manure involved in AltEn’s process.”

The attorneys said they requested a delay in the permit process because, “the pipes and historic connections remain with a considerable environmental cleanup effort underway. It is our desire to ensure that the appropriate entities are involved in and share the costs of the cleanup effort.

“Mead Cattle’s responsibility may need to be addressed in part in connection with in-kind services, such as access to the feedlot property for remediation activities, and financial contribution may be required in advance of the completion of a sale.”

When the plant was built by E3 Biofuels it was designed as a closed-loop system. The ethanol plant was designed to use manure from the feedlot to produce methane to fuel ethanol production.

MEAD CATTLE RESPONDS

On May 21, 2021, Mead Cattle Manager Buck Wehrbein responded to the seed companies’ request in a letter to local and state government officials.

Wehrbein said the seed companies have attempted to buy area farm ground in order to erect water storage tanks to hold contaminated lagoon water from AltEn.

There has been no evidence of contamination at the feedlot as a result of the situation on the AltEn property, he said. In addition, he said Mead Cattle operates independent of the ethanol plant and not in tandem as the seed companies suggest.

“I have been manager of the Mead Cattle Company since 1999, and I can tell you the feedlot operates separately from the ethanol plant,” Wehrbein said in the letter.

“Any lagoons in which feedlot manure is located are physically not connected to the lagoons operated by the ethanol plant that contain water that comes from the ethanol plant.”

Wehrbein said the ethanol plant had not accepted manure from Mead Cattle since 2016.

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Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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