‘There’s a red flag here’: how an ethanol plant is dangerously polluting a US village
For the residents of Mead, Nebraska, the first sign of something wrong was the stink, the smell of something rotting. People reported eye and throat irritation and nosebleeds. Then bee colonies began to die, birds and butterflies looked disoriented, and dogs got sick and staggered with dilated pupils.
There is no secret as to the source of the concern in Mead, a farming community so small that its 500 residents call it a village rather than a town.
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After multiple complaints to state and federal officials and an investigation by a University of Nebraska researcher, all evidence points to an unlikely culprit - an ethanol plant that, like many others in the US, turns corn into biofuel.
The company, called AltEn, is said to help the environment by using starch grains like corn to produce about 25 million gallons of ethanol annually. These regulators are widely recognized as an environmentally friendly source of car fuel. Ethanol plants also typically produce a by-product called distillator grains that are sold as nutritious forage.
Unlike most of the other 203 US ethanol plants, AltEn has used seeds coated with fungicides and insecticides, including those known as neonicotinoids or "neonics," in its production process.
Those in charge of the company have advertised AltEn as a “recycling” location where agricultural companies can get rid of excess stocks of pesticide-treated seeds. This strategy allowed AltEn to be supplied with ethanol for free, but it also left behind a waste product that was too pesticidal to feed animals.
Instead, AltEn has amassed thousands of pounds of a smelly, lime green pulp of fermented grains, distributed some as "soil conditioners" to agricultural fields, and the remainder on the grounds of his plant.
It is this waste that some researchers say is dangerously polluting the water and soil, and is likely to pose a health threat to animals and humans as well. They point to tests ordered by state officials that found neonics in AltEn waste to be many times higher than considered safe.
Some of the recorded levels are just outside the charts
"Some of the values recorded are just off the charts," said Dan Raichel, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who worked with scientists and other environmental groups to oversee the situation at Mead. "If I lived in this area and the neonics went into the water and the environment, I would be concerned for my own health."
Raichel and other observers say the situation in Mead is a red flag - an example of the need for stricter regulations on pesticide-coated seeds marketed by large companies like Bayer AG and Syngenta.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regards neonics in food and water as safe in the range of up to 70 parts per billion (ppb), depending on the specific pesticide. The agency sets different standards for freshwater invertebrates. For the neon known as clothianidin the benchmark is 11 ppb and for a neonic called thiamethoxam it is 17.5 ppb.
On the AltEn property, government environmental officials recorded a clothianidin content of an astonishing 427,000 ppb when testing one of the large mounds of AltEn waste. Thiamethoxam was found to be 85,100 ppb according to tests ordered by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.
In an AltEn wastewater lagoon, clothianidin was measured at 31,000 ppb and thiamethoxam at 24,000 ppb. A third dangerous neon called imidacloprid was also found in the lagoon at 312 ppb. The EPA aquatic benchmark for imidacloprid is 0.385 ppb. AltEn's lagoon system holds approximately 175 m gallons.
High concentrations of 10 other pesticides were also found in the plant lagoon. At least four pesticides in corn used by AltEn, including clothianidin and thiamethoxam, are known to be "harmful to humans, birds, mammals, bees, freshwater fish" and other living things, according to state regulators in a letter to AltEn dated October noted.
State officials have cited the facility for "non-compliance" with various pollution prevention regulations and stated in the October letter that they are concerned that AltEn is not properly disposing of waste and have noted the possibility of "short-term contamination" and longer-term surface water and groundwater ".
It's a really significant contamination event that is affecting local ecosystems and the local community
"It's a really significant contamination event that is affecting local ecosystems and the community there," said Sarah Hoyle, who specializes in pesticide problems for the Xerces Society, an Oregon-based conservation organization who is researching the problem in Mead helps.
Neither AltEn general manager Scott Tingelhoff nor two other factory officials responded to several Guardian requests for comment.
Last year, Tingelhoff told a local television station that the company was working with state regulators to address concerns.
Mead residents were concerned about waste from the facility that was not left on the facility's property. In addition to the quantities needed on farms for distribution to the cultivation area, even more appears to have been leached and spilled from sewage lagoons into adjacent waterways.
AltEn has also used its wastewater for cultivation areas. Some Mead residents fear the well water on which their homes depend is now contaminated, while researchers also worry about possible contamination of an underground aquifer that provides water throughout the American Midwest.
They are also unhappy with what they say about regulatory failures to protect the community for more than two years.
"I've gotten a lot of backlash from people from the state," said area-resident Paula Dyas, who filed a complaint with the state when her dogs became sick after ingesting some of the litter dumped in a neighboring farm field had been. Her pets have recovered but were so sick that she feared permanent damage. "There is just no regard for how much of these chemicals we put on the land and what it will ultimately mean for animals and wildlife," she said.
Jody Weible, former chair of the Mead Planning Commission, tried to enlist the help of state political leaders and regulators to deal with what she calls the "poison" that comes from AltEn. The plant is about a mile from its 34 year old home.
"I've emailed the EPA, water, parks, and conservation officers to pretty much everyone I can think of," Weible said. "They all say there is nothing they can do about it."
Other neighbors who live near the plant have told state officials about strange diseases and dead or dying birds.
After several complaints, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture ordered AltEn to stop distributing its waste to agricultural fields. However, this has meant that more and more have accumulated on site in the ethanol plant or washed into the lagoons. AltEn has also started to incinerate some of the waste and to store "biochar" in sacks outside on the plant site, which further worries local residents.
State regulators state that they have not tested any water, soil or vegetation outside of the plant plot and have no knowledge of potential further damage from the spread of AltEn waste. But Judy Wu-Smart, a University of Nebraska researcher who studies bee health, did some testing and said there was little doubt that contamination on the plant has spread well beyond its limits.
In a paper she shared with regulators and other researchers, Wu-Smart said every single beehive maintained on a university research farm about a mile from Mead has died. She has also reported a shortage of other insects common in the area and has videotaped birds and butterflies in the area that appear neurologically impaired.
After finding neonic debris in the vegetation and tracing waterways connecting the university land with AltEn, Wu-Smart is concerned that a widespread contamination event caused by high neon levels will affect the environment and possibly the people living in the region.
The bees are just a bio-indicator that something is seriously wrong
“There's a red flag here. The bees are just a bio-indicator that something is seriously wrong, ”said Wu-Smart. There is "an urgent need to investigate possible effects on local communities and wildlife," she said.
Neonics are absorbed through the roots of plants as they grow and can linger in the environment for years. Together with other pesticides, they are accused of a so-called "insect apocalypse". The insecticides have also been linked to serious defects in white-tailed deer, adding to concerns about the chemical's potential to harm large mammals, including humans.
The European Union banned the use of Neonics Clothianidin, Imidacloprid and Thiamethoxam outdoors in 2018, and the United Nations says that Neonics are so dangerous that they should be "severely" restricted. In the US, however, neonics are widespread.
It's not just Nebraska that is at risk
Meghan Milbrath, assistant professor of entomology at Michigan State University, said the effects of AltEn's practices "extend well beyond Mead."
"As we've seen here, mistreated seeds can lead to significant contamination that disrupts ecosystems and endangers communities," said Milbrath.
The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) said it had "no opinion" about the cause of the bee deaths and was not "responsible" on the matter. The state agency said it would continue to "review" the facility's operations and activities.
And while the state has not stopped AltEn from ingesting pesticide-coated seeds for ethanol production, it has directed AltEn to implement a groundwater monitoring plan and other mitigation measures, despite the state having identified several compliance issues. The state has also instructed AltEn to dispose of their waste in an approved disposal area for solid waste.
Residents wonder if this is going to happen or not and point out large piles of green waste still ringing the doorbell.
Neither Tingelhoff, the AltEn managing director, nor two other works officials responded to a request for comment.
State officials declined to be interviewed for this story, though Blayne Glissman, an NDEE waste permit specialist, offered a defense for the ethanol operation, saying he believed AltEn officials were just "hardworking people trying to make a living." to earn".
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