Scientists from across the nation helping Nebraska researchers focus on failed ethanol plant

Source: By Norfolk Daily News • Posted: Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Nebraskans should feel fortunate — in most ways — that scientists from across the nation who are associated with the U.S. Geological Survey have joined the expanding research effort at a failed ethanol plant.

The facility in question is the former AltEn plant at Mead that was forced to close by the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy last year following mounting violations of state environmental regulations.

The problem was that the former biofuel plant used seeds coated in neonicotinoids — a class of pesticides similar to nicotine that overstimulate insects’ nervous systems, leading to their death — to produce ethanol, which, in turn, left behind toxic solid and liquid waste.

Cleanup efforts aren’t just dealing with the stockpiles of waste at the site. More importantly, scientists are banding together to determine how far chemicals from the plant have traveled off-site. The risk of environmental and health ramifications can’t be ignored.

So, the fact that scientists with the U.S. Department of Interior’s lead science agency have agreed to help researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Creighton University is a positive thing. The expertise the U.S. Geological Survey scientists possess should help ultimately better understand how pesticides — that are used widely in seed treatments — move across the landscape.

Paul Bradley, a research ecologist and hydrologist based in Columbia, S.C., said part of the federal agency’s mission is to “support decision makers and public health researchers” in understanding how exposure to potential contaminants leads to adverse health outcomes in humans.

That scientific question is pertinent not just to the AltEn operation. The research results could lead to the formation of new scientific health standards. The work at Mead could also help inform new laws or guide future cleanup efforts.

They’ll be collecting samples from air, surface and groundwater, as well as animals and pollinators. They’ll be collecting and examining organisms that illustrate the food web that exists in areas potentially affected by AltEn, as well as those that were not affected. Building the food web and charting the complex interactions will help develop an understanding of how neonicotinoids in particular are transported from organism to organism and what that might mean for the future of the ecosystem.

The collaborative research has the potential to result in findings that will benefit many in the future.

All of that is positive, but what isn’t is the unfortunate reality that a former Nebraska ethanol plant is the problem that caused the need for the research. The scientific spotlight is shining clearly on the Cornhusker State.