February 05, 2023

Nebraska regulators sue ethanol plant, citing pollution

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — State regulators filed a lawsuit March 1 accusing a Nebraska ethanol plant of repeatedly failing to comply with their orders to clean up wastewater and old, pesticide-laced seed corn.

The lawsuit comes amid growing complaints about the AltEn plant near Mead, a town of fewer than 600 people about 37 miles west of Omaha.

Mead residents have complained about a stench coming from the plant since shortly after it opened in 2015. They’ve reported bloody noses, headaches and trouble breathing, although no one has studied whether those problems are tied to the plant. Officials said the corn waste has been stockpiled at the plant and spread over nearby fields.

State officials in Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration said they tried to work with plant managers to clean up the affected area and gave the company a full year to comply, but their administrative orders weren’t followed. The lawsuit filed in Saunders County District Court seeks a judge’s order to force the plant to act and impose civil penalties as punishment.

“What’s driving this is a poorly run corporation that fails to recognize the authority of the state,” Attorney General Doug Peterson said at a news conference to announce the lawsuit.

Peterson said he will try to force the company to pay the state’s costs from the lawsuit, although it’s possible AltEn could seek bankruptcy protection.

Unlike most ethanol plants that buy corn for processing, AltEn uses surplus seeds that it receives at no cost. The seeds are often coated with agricultural chemicals, making their leftover residue unsuitable for use as an animal feed supplement.

Jim Macy, the director of the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, said his agency doesn’t believe the chemicals have migrated into the soil or groundwater in Mead. Officials were testing the area to confirm that it is safe.

But Macy said testing of a water in a ditch near the plant showed high levels of neonicotinoids, a group of insecticides that have been blamed for killing large numbers of bees.

“This is a truly rare case,” Macy said, promising that the state will hold AltEn accountable.

A phone message left at AltEn’s business office wasn’t immediately returned. Ricketts, a staunch ethanol supporter, said the company was “terribly managed” and “does not reflect the ethanol industry in Nebraska.”

The 97-page lawsuit accuses the company of dumping waste in area where it was likely to contaminate water and land, discharging a pollutant into state waters without a permit, failing to follow the orders of state regulators, and other allegations.