Researchers detect insecticides in water, home near troubled Nebraska ethanol plant

Source: By Omaha World Herald • Posted: Monday, June 20, 2022

MEAD — Residents of this small town heard mixed results Thursday from preliminary environmental testing around an ethanol plant blamed for illness and widespread contamination.

But in Mead, mixed results are an improvement over the drumbeat of bad news that has come out of the AltEn ethanol plant.

Joel and Joan Schrader, veterinarians who live about 5 miles from AltEn, said they were encouraged by the help from the University of Nebraska, which is leading the testing effort.

“They have built trust with the community, and that is going to help,” Joel Schrader said. “This problem is finally getting some traction.

NU scientists told the approximately 50 people gathered at the Mead fire hall:

The insecticides have likely been airborne because they showed up in wipe tests at a home in Mead, said Eleanor Rogan, who is coordinating the study. That’s the bad news, she said. But the good news is that the levels were 10 to 100 times below the Environmental Protection Agency’s level of concern. Additionally, because local farmers also use these chemicals, it’s not possible to be certain they are the result of AltEn’s operations.

“This is mostly good news,” Rogan said. “But to have found them inside is bad news.”

Rogan is a professor and interim chairwoman within the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Bees, which had died by the hundreds of thousands when the ethanol plant was operating, are starting to survive, said Judy Wu-Smart, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“This is really positive news,” she said, adding a caveat: “That doesn’t mean they’ll survive the season.”

The underlying reason for the bee deaths is troubling, Wu-Smart said. “Bees are telling us that these plants have toxins in them … so it’s a food quality issue.”

Water tests show higher concentrations of insecticides several miles from the ethanol plant. This raises the worrying possibility that the contamination could move farther downstream, not just in creeks but in the aquifer, said Jesse Bell, a professor of water, climate and health at UNMC.

Mead residents Molly and Andy Jackson said the migration of contaminates in groundwater is reason for other communities in eastern Nebraska to take note. A problem that may seem isolated to Mead could be traveling their way, the couple said.

Water tests also show that the chemicals are degrading in water, which might sound like a good thing. However, Bell and Rogan said, the byproducts of that degradation are highly toxic, and by breaking into multiple chemicals, they become harder to track.

Thursday’s presentation was based on research by scientists in the NU system and Creighton University. The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, which is responsible for regulating AltEn, did not attend the meeting. State regulators are conducting their own testing.

The meeting gave people their first glimpse at the university’s results from air, water, soil, vegetation and wildlife sampling. Results from a number of the tests are pending.

The university also conducted a voluntary health survey of residents. About 400 people responded, Rogan said, and those results are being compiled. The next step is to collect blood and urine samples from the public. About 100 people have agreed to do so, she said.

Rogan said her primary concern is that long-term exposure to the chemicals will harm human health. Especially vulnerable, she said, are infants and children whose neurological systems are still developing. A number of the insecticides are neurotoxins, she said.

Residents around the plant have said they have experienced bloody noses, headaches, trouble breathing and infected sinuses. A family whose home adjoins a field where “compost” from the plant was spread said their pets appeared to be neurologically affected, stumbling immediately after eating clumps of the material.

Throughout the evening, the scientists made a pitch to those in the audience: Help us. The scientists said they need access to more homes and fields for testing, and more people to participate in the studies.

AltEn opened in 2015. Unlike other ethanol plants, it did not use harvested corn to make ethanol. Instead, it solicited unused “seed” corn, which are kernels of corn that have been coated with insecticide and fungicides to improve their germination and survival rate. The kernels are so heavily coated that seed companies limit how many seeds should be planted per acre.

AltEn has ceased operations, and seed companies are assisting in a cleanup.

The state has provided the NU system $1 million in federal funding to continue the research.

Rogan said water, soil and air sampling will continue.