Wastewater spill at Mead ethanol plant has traveled more than 4 miles downstream

Source: By Paul Hammel, Omaha World Herald • Posted: Thursday, February 18, 2021

LINCOLN — A state environmental agency on Wednesday ordered an ethanol plant near Mead to immediately construct additional barriers to prevent further migration of wastewater leaking from the plant after below-zero temperatures burst pipes on a 4-million gallon digester tank.

The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, in a press release, said it had also ordered AltEn to conduct hourly inspections for potential leaks from a second digester and to construct secondary containment in case of a potential failure.

The agency said the company had already constructed a dam on a culvert south of the intersection of Highway 66 and Road 7 to prevent migration of the leaking manure (used in the digester to create methane) and thin stillage, which is possibly contaminated with pesticides, into the Platte River. Wastewater from the spill, detected on Friday, had migrated 4½ miles down the stream, the NDEE said.

The NDEE’s “letter of noncompliance,” sent to AltEn on Wednesday, lists four violations of the company’s wastewater permit, including spills of treated seed around the plant and lack of controls over storm water runoff from piles of waste grain.

The letter said that if the company didn’t voluntarily take corrective actions, the matter would be referred to the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office for enforcement, which could include up to a $10,000 fine per day for noncompliance.

The AltEn facility, unlike other ethanol plants, uses seed corn coated in pesticides and herbicides to produce the corn-based fuel. Putrid odors from the leftover distillers grain, and concerns about health impacts and chemical contamination of groundwater, have prompted complaints from nearby residents for three years.

State regulators recently ordered the facility closed, and gave AltEn until March 1 to dispose of the huge piles of leftover grain near the plant, which is just south of Mead, a community of 608 people.

NDEE officials have been on site monitoring the plant since Friday, and have given the company until noon Thursday to provide written plans on how it will recover and dispose of the digester material and how the facility plans to prevent and contain a potential discharge from its second digester.

Samples of the leaked material have been taken to determine if it contains pesticides, officials said. The Environmental Protection Agency is also on site to assess the spill, collect additional samples and give advice on cleanup. Results from the sampling could take up to two weeks, the NDEE said.

The agency said it will have emergency response staff on site daily to monitor the situation and cleanup efforts.