Nebraska benefits when it achieves economic growth as well as environmental protection. But the state must take a hard look at a flaw in how its regulations attempt to achieve those goals.
As things currently stand, the state in some instances dawdles for so long in enforcing environmental restrictions that companies continue bad business practices for years. Compliance costs mount, with Nebraska taxpayers covering the protracted government action and, in some cases, much of the cleanup costs.
In other words, Nebraska environmental regulation sometimes results in taxpayer subsidies for bad business practices. This makes no sense along any dimension — in terms of the best use of public money, the state’s economic needs or adequate protection of the environment.
Two examples illustrate the point.
World-Herald news coverage recently told of how a tire recycling company in Alvo, a Cass County village, has piled up an extraordinary mountain of scrap tires stretching across an area larger than a football field. The mass of tires far exceeds that allowable by environmental and fire regulations.
Residents are understandably fearful of the potentially disastrous consequences for the community were the tires to catch fire and generate an enormous volume of toxic fumes.
How did the situation reach such a troubling extreme? The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy takes a flexible approach to environmental regulation. Rather than aggressively enforce restrictions up front, the department attempts to help companies reach compliance. Although it’s true that government agencies should be wary of intervening in private business in an overly heavy-handed manner, there comes a tipping point when such protracted leniency winds up enabling harmful behavior the state should have stopped years earlier.
That’s the case in Alvo, where the company now says it’s engaged in a much-needed cleanup after months of increasing the tire mountain despite repeated ineffectual warnings from the state. In April, Nebraska regulators finally reached a consent order with the company, requiring incremental reductions in the tire mound by Sept. 1. The state would likely take legal action if the company fails to meet its obligations. The Nebraska State Fire Marshal Agency also struck an agreement with the company.
Meanwhile, residents of Mead, in Saunders County, have faced years of frustration at the state’s failure to address multiple environmental concerns surrounding the AltEn ethanol plant, the only facility in the country that treated corn coated in pesticides and fungicides. Local residents have complained for years about the rancid odors and health concerns associated with huge piles of leftover grain, as well as the possibility of groundwater contamination.
In February, Nebraska regulators found that the plant’s three lagoons were all were in danger of overflowing, and that liners on two of the lagoons were badly damaged and had not been repaired, as required by a state order issued two years earlier. The Legislature passed a bill this spring to forbid the processing of insecticide- or fungicide-laced corn for ethanol production.
These examples, involving prolonged concern for the residents of Alvo and Mead, provide powerful evidence of Nebraska’s regulatory failure and state leaders’ duty to confront and fix the problem.