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"Greed and poison": Mead residents talk on ethanol plant shut down by regulators

Posted at 5:00 PM, Mar 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-18 20:34:09-04

MEAD, Neb. (KMTV) — Jody Weible blames AltEn Ethanol for her health problems, which she said began when the plant showed up in Mead in 2015. She’s lived in Mead, just west of Omaha in Saunders County, since the ‘80s.

“I have coughed for three years solid,” she said. “I'm allergic to mold, and those piles are full of mold.”

The plant was ordered to shut down in late February this year, and about a week later, a four-million-gallon digester tank began leaking wastewater onto the ground, including onto a University of Nebraska research facility. On March 1, the state and the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy filed a lawsuit.

Weible believes piles of the plant’s byproduct — grain that had been treated with pesticides before use — are to blame. AltEn, the state said, is one of only a few ethanol plants in the country that use treated seed in the production process. Since the plant opened, she said she’s smelled a horrible odor around the town.

“It will burn your nose,” Weible said. “It will make your eyes water. It will take your breath away. It will make you cough. It is the worst thing I have ever smelled.”

She and several others have complained about the plant to state regulators. Emails show people complaining about the smell, asking if there’s a health risk, and noting that the odor was inside a nearby medical center. One man said he is used to bad smells when working with cattle, but noted the smell coming from the “rotten product” is the worst thing he’d ever smelled. State officials traced the smell back to the grain sitting out in the open near the plant.

The plant sold its grain as a soil conditioner. A test by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, according to the state’s lawsuit, found elevated levels of three pesticides. If used as a soil conditioner as proposed, the NDA found 85 times the maximum allowed “by a typical registered pesticide label.”

On May 17, 2019, the NDA issued an order to end the distribution of the distiller’s grain. According to the lawsuit, AltEn voluntarily stopped nearly three months later.

“I heard a farmer over by Wahoo…had a pile on there that hadn't been spread yet,” said Bill Thorson, chairperson of Mead’s village board. “I was told that nothing has grown there for two years.”

Paula Dyas, another Mead resident, said she saw her dogs eating the grain that had been applied to a nearby field. She said their pupils dilated and they stumbled around for days.

Katie Dommel lived in Mead but moved out in 2018, which is when she said her family’s respiratory issues disappeared.

“Our daughter had nose bleeds at least once a week,” said Dommel.

But AltEn then fought orders to stop storing grain byproduct on its property by claiming it wasn’t a solid waste. When the state first notified the plant of that violation, it found 26,000 tons of distiller’s grain onsite. At its most recent inspection, the NDEE said the amount of the grain on site had more than tripled since then to about 84,000 tons.

“I want all that stuff gone,” said Weible. “I don't want them to go bankrupt, and leave it for Mead, because Mead can't afford to clean it up.”

The state’s lawsuit seeks penalties to be ordered by the judge of up to $10,000 per day, per violation. The lawsuit outlines violations of state statute related to waste management and water and air pollution.

The state's complaint filed in Saunders County court earlier this month is here.