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Midlands Voices: State has much work to do to address AltEn fiasco

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Waste left over from processing ethanol is in piles outside the AltEn Ethanol plant near Mead, Nebraska, in January 2021.

The League of Women Voters of Nebraska continues to be concerned about the ongoing environmental disaster caused by AltEn Ethanol in Mead. We are greatly concerned for our fellow Nebraskans and the surrounding ecosystems that have been poisoned. Information shared by the media on Feb. 9 — that the state of Nebraska approved unprecedented use of pesticide-laden seed corn — underscores our request for urgent action.

We have learned that on July 26, 2012, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (now Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy) approved AltEn’s request for a change to their National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit.

According to the permit request, this granted AltEn the “ability to utilize discarded ‘treated’ seed in the ethanol production process in addition to and/or in lieu of traditional grain feedstock. The majority of the discarded seed will be treated with herbicides and pesticides prior to AltEn taking possession.” It states in the request that “wet distillers grain (WDG) will no longer be sent to the adjacent feedlot as the chemical treatments render WDG unsuitable for livestock feed.”

In 2018, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture allowed the use of WDG to be applied to fields as a “soil conditioner.” In March 2019, NDA tested the material and in April 2019 ordered the firm to cease and desist its use on fields.

Why didn’t the NDA test the wet cake before it was allowed to be applied to the land?

On March 1, 2021, in the NDEE lawsuit complaint in State of Nebraska v. AltEn, the state tells the court something quite different: “The Department discovered in 2015 that AltEn was using discarded seed corn that had been treated with pesticides as its feedstock rather than normal field corn. The Department, however, did not know until 2018 that the byproducts from AltEn’s ethanol production could contain measurable residues of pesticides.”

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This problem has been allowed to continue for far too long, especially at the expense of those it impacts directly. In a Feb. 7, 2022, letter to each Nebraska state senator, the League of Women Voters of Nebraska asked them to act with a sense of urgency and prioritize creating a special committee, protecting the victims, initiating safe clean-up solutions, conducting long-term research, and establishing safeguards to never allow this to happen again.

The League supports LR159, “Request the Executive Board to appoint an AltEn LLC, Ethanol Plant Special Investigative and Oversight Committee,” to study and investigate the timelines, records, rules, products, drinking water and costs associated. AltEn is a statewide problem that requires a whole-state investigation to be sure that our environmental laws are strong enough to stop entities like AltEn.

We support LB1102 “to adopt the Nebraska Environmental Response Act and change provisions relating to enforcement of environmental protection requirements.” We also support LB694 with the amendment “to provide a statute of limitations for exposure to certain chemicals, prescription drugs or medical devices.”

AltEn is a complex problem that requires multidisciplinary research not limited to plant, animal and human life. Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln believe it would take 10 years and $10 million to do a complete analysis. Obviously, this is an urgent request that must be fulfilled. Thus, we support LR277 for an interim study to protect and manage vulnerable pollinators that are in decline as a result of this harmful situation.

Additionally, the League asks the Nebraska attorney general to move forward with the AltEn lawsuit, filed March 1, 2021. And we request that the NDEE schedule a public hearing to receive public comment on the AltEn Facility Response Group Remedial Action Plan filed with the agency on Nov. 1, 2021.

Quality of the land, air and water have all been compromised. Our neighbors deserve human dignity and healthy lives. Environmental stewardship and hazardous waste remediation are key components for long-term solutions, not Band-Aid shells and leaky liners. Citizen-led organizations are doing everything in their power to advocate for the best outcome. We need our elected representatives to use every option in their toolkits to make this better.


Midlands Voices January 2022

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Janelle Stevenson and Megan Lyons of Lincoln are co-directors, Natural Resources and Energy, for the League of Women Voters of Nebraska.

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