Nebraska files legal action to force environmental cleanup at ethanol plant near Mead

Source: By Paul Hammel and Martha Stoddard, Omaha World Herald • Posted: Monday, March 1, 2021


022521-owh-news-mead-p3 (copy)
State Attorney General Doug Peterson announced Monday that his office filed a lawsuit against AltEn, asking the court to order the company to clean up its wastewater lagoon and pile of waste seed corn. GWYNETH ROBERTS, LINCOLN JOURNAL STAR

Mead residents say ethanol plant is spreading ‘poison’ and making them sick

LINCOLN — After years of failing to get voluntary compliance with state environmental rules, the State of Nebraska went to court Monday to force a troubled ethanol plant near Mead to clean up its act.

State Attorney General Doug Peterson announced that his office filed a 97-page lawsuit against AltEn, asking the court to order the company to clean up its wastewater lagoon and properly dispose of 100,000 tons of contaminated, waste seed corn piled around the facility.

The state also is seeking payment from the company for the costs of cleaning up, and to pay penalties for a lack of compliance, which could be up to $10,000 a day for each of the 18 claims made in the lawsuit.

“What’s driving this is a poorly, poorly run operation,” said Peterson, calling the extensive lawsuit one of the most comprehensive his office has filed during his six years in office.

AltEn officials did not respond immediately to a request for comment on Monday. In the past, the company has issued a statement that they were working with the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) to comply with state regulations.

But Peterson, as well as Jim Macy, the director of the NDEE, said that the company’s failure to comply with a state order to remove its piles of waste grain by Monday was the primary reason the lawsuit was filed.

“Today, AltEn is going to be held accountable for its mismanagement,” Macy said at a press conference.

The legal action, filed in Saunders County District Court, comes after at least three years of complaints of rancid odors, health problems and possible contamination of groundwater associated with the plant, and after dozens of inspections and orders to comply with state environmental rules went unsatisfied.

Macy, at the press conference, declined to say how long he had talked with the Attorney General’s Office about filing a lawsuit but did indicate that it was in the works before Feb. 12, when frozen pipes on a 4-million gallon digester burst at the AltEn plant, sending contaminated liquid flowing down ditches to a nearby stream.

Mead residents have complained about the lack of enforcement steps by the state, until the recent steps to close the facility.

Macy, as well as Peterson, defended the state’s actions, saying that compliance with regulations is sought first, but this was a rare case of a company not willing to cooperate.

“This is part of due process,” Macy said. “Sometimes it takes some time to develop a case.”

Bill Thorson, the chairman of the Mead Village Board, said Monday that he was glad the state had finally taken action instead of granting another “extension” for the company to comply.

“As long as they stay on them and don’t give them extensions, I’ll be happy,” Thorson said. “Extensions don’t work with them.”

He added that the only cleanup work he’s observed lately has been by contractors hired by the state.

Macy, on Monday, said he didn’t know how much the state had spent to clean up the recent spill at AltEn. It is possible that the state might bear the entire cost of the cleanup if the company declares bankruptcy.

The AltEn facility, unlike other ethanol plants, used leftover seed corn, coated in herbicides and pesticides, to produce alcohol. Its leftover grain has been labeled as waste that had to be disposed of at a licensed landfill. The grain, because of its toxic content, could not be sold to cattle or deposited on farm fields.

State officials said it appeared there had been little effort to remove the waste grain, despite a state order last year that they be transported to a licensed landfill.

Last month, the AltEn plant was closed because of concerns about its wastewater lagoons getting close to overflowing, and overall pollution of air, water and land associated with the plant. Then the frozen pipes burst on the digester, which contained thin stillage and cattle manure, causing a 4-mile-long spill of possibly contaminated runoff.

Macy said that recent, preliminary testing of liquids in AltEn’s wastewater lagoons levels of neonicotinoids that were at least 260 times the accepted levels in drinking water, 20,000 to 30,000 parts per billion compared to 77 parts per billion, a standards used by the State of Minnesota.

Testing of the runoff from the leak were less toxic, about 2,000-3,000 parts per billion, he said, while one monitoring well near AltEn’s waste lagoon registered 22-26 parts per billion.

Peterson said that noncompliance with orders to dispose of the waste grain and fix leaking lagoons were the impetus for the lawsuit, because the plant did not appear to be threatening public health.

The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy has had personnel on site daily since the waste spill.

Speaking to complaints from Mead-area residents, Macy said he hoped the legal action would bring “a measure of relief.”

“We heard your concerns,” he said. “We take those seriously.”

He also said the department has tested soil in the village of Mead, but he doubts if contamination will be found there. More testing, Macy said, will be done of local drinking water wells and monitoring wells.

Nebraska regulators took a “progressive approach” to enforcement, according to Macy.

Last week, he told state legislators that every effort had been made to get the AltEn plant to comply with state regulations. NDEE had conducted 77 inspections at the plant since 2016, he said. At the time, Macy would not comment about whether matters had been turned over to the Attorney General’s office — which handles enforcement for the NDEE.