‘We want it back to what it was’: the US village blighted by toxic waste

by Carey Gillam

For a visitor to this rural part of eastern Nebraska, the crisp air, blue skies and stretch of seemingly endless farm fields appear as unspoiled landscape. But for the people who live here, there is no denying this is an environmental disaster that researchers fear may affect generations to come.

It has been just over a year since state regulators stepped in to close down the AltEn LLC ethanol plant on the outskirts of Mead, Nebraska, a small village of about 500 people near Omaha. The plant was found to be the source of huge quantities of toxic, pesticide-laced waste, which was stored in lagoons and piled into hills of a putrid lime-green mash. That waste then was accidentally spilled and intentionally spread throughout the area, including on to farm fields and into waterways that provide drinking water for people and wildlife several miles downstream.

A monumental cleanup is under way that could cost perhaps $100m or more, according to Bill Thorson, the village board chairman. “The stench would be so bad your eyes would burn here in town,” Thorson said in a recent interview. “Let’s get this cleaned up.”

Signs of the impact on this community are everywhere.

A farmhouse has been abandoned by its owners after their young children experienced health problems; a pond once filled with fish and frogs is now empty of all life; university researchers are collecting blood and urine from residents to analyze them for contaminants.

A family miles away from the plant said they now only drink water from plastic bottles because tests show chemical contamination of their drinking well. “We want it back to what it was,” resident Stan Keiser told the Guardian. “That shouldn’t be too much to ask.”

Crews of environmental engineers are filtering millions of gallons of water through newly constructed treatment units and adopting techniques seen at some US Superfund sites to contain and control the waste. The measures include the use of a helicopter to drop a temporary, protective shell-like coating of cement, fiber and clay over 16 acres of waste piles.

Questions about how best to move forward have divided this community of about 500 people. Some are calling for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to declare a Superfund site in Mead, while others say such a move would only add to costs and bureaucracy and depress property values.

State regulators plan to hold a public hearing in the Mead high school gymnasium on 27 April as part of an effort to listen to concerns. Regulators are also providing “information and updates” to the community on a designated webpage on the cleanup. The regulators say they are inspecting the site three times a week to try to prevent further escape of toxins.

Researchers, however, say it is not clear if or how all the damage can be erased, and the situation underscores how difficult – perhaps impossible – it is to truly escape contamination from pesticides and other chemicals that are becoming pervasive in our environment, and answer questions about the health impacts.

“We are using and releasing more chemicals into the environment than ever before, and know very little about long-term effects from exposure,” said Daniel Snow, an environmental chemist and director of the water sciences laboratory at the University of Nebraska.

Neurotoxins in the water

The trouble at AltEn traces back to a strategy that defied normal industry practices. AltEn advised large seed companies that they could rid themselves of unwanted stocks of corn seed and other types of seeds coated with highly concentrated amounts of fungicides and insecticides by “recycling” them for use in AltEn’s production of biofuel.

These treated seeds are widely used by farmers to try to protect crops from insects and disease but are seen by environmental advocates as detrimental and unnecessary.

The seed coatings on the products disposed of at AltEn contained concentrated amounts of several pesticides that are known as neonicotinoids, or “neonics”, which can have neurotoxic effects on people and animals.

Neonicotinoids are used across on an estimated 150m acres of US farmland, and scientific research has shown they are contributing to a decline in important pollinators such as honeybees. While some countries have banned certain neonics, the US government has proposed allowing extended use.

So while the strategy gave AltEn supplies for its ethanol, it also left the plant with toxic wastewater and more than 80,000 tons of a pesticide-laden solid byproduct or “wet cake”, mounded in piles around the plant property.

State officials recorded the neonic pesticides in AltEn waste at levels many times higher than what is considered safe. For the neonic known as clothianidin the regulatory benchmark is 11 parts per billion, but AltEn waste contained clothianidin at 427,000 parts per billion, for instance, according to state records.

Regulatory documents show that plant operators spread some of the waste materials on area farm fields and more flowed off the AltEn property through a series of events that included heavy rains and a ruptured pipe. Regulators finally closed down the plant in early 2021.

AltEn’s former operators, who are also now being sued by the Nebraska attorney general for multiple alleged environmental violations, could not be reached for comment. Lawyers for AltEn also did not respond to a request for comment.

Six of the world’s largest seed companies have filed lawsuits against AltEn, alleging plant operators violated contracts and failed to dispose of the chemically treated seeds safely. The companies, which include the Monsanto owner Bayer AG and Chinese-owned Syngenta, are paying for and organizing the cleanup effort through a coalition they call the AltEn Facility Response Group (AFRG).

In its lawsuit against AltEn, Syngenta alleges that plant operators left the property with “significant environmental risks” that included “thousands of tons of untreated wet cake on the property in improperly managed and inadequately secured piles” and “lagoons overfilled with wastewater and in risk of failing”.

Along with covering the toxin-filled wet cake with the temporary shell, contractors hired by AFRG have constructed a new lined pond system on the AltEn site, treated 14m gallons of wastewater, and have started disposing of the treated water by applying it to area fields, among other measures. They are not yet sure how to dispose of the wet cake, but are analyzing options, according to Don Gunster, a project coordinator with NewFields environmental consulting firm, which is working for the AFRG alongside other engineering and scientific firms specializing in environmental cleanups.

“Our efforts are starting to make an important difference at the site,” Gunster said. A top priority is “ensuring the safety of the surrounding community and environment while addressing the site conditions caused by AltEn”, he said.

Personal losses

Ray and Emily Loftus abandoned their dream home, only half a mile away from AltEn, after their youngest child started having respiratory problems and they determined the old farmhouse with the big yard was too close to the plant to be safe for their family of four. The property now sits vacant, a child’s ball still resting in the grass near a swing set moved now only by the breeze.

A few miles downstream from AltEn, Stan Keiser and his wife drink only bottled water after AltEn contaminants were found in their well, and they are both saddened and infuriated by the flow of toxic wastewater that they say has wiped all signs of life from the four-acre farm pond. Testing of the pond water, sediment and private well all showed evidence of pesticide contamination.

Their daughter Amy Whitehead can’t forget the sight of the dead beavers and a small dead fox she found near the water after a burst pipe at AltEn sent foul-smelling foamy wastewater flowing on to the Keiser property. The fish died long before that, just about a year after AltEn started using the pesticide-coated seeds. The farm has been in her family since 1911, and she hopes her children can one day live and play on the land without risk. But she worries that may not be possible any time soon.

“I worry about the water,” Whitehead said. “It’s not clean. It just seems dead.”

Keiser used to enjoy fishing with his wife and running grandkids around the pond in a paddleboat, but now the couple has dismantled the dock and they keep their distance from the water.

In a letter sent to state regulators in February, the Keisers said concerns over the condition of their drinking water persist. They want routine testing of their well water, and a filtration system put in place for their home and livestock water needs. They also want their pond water removed and treated, the sediment removed, and a new liner installed.

“We just want to make these people accountable,” Stan Keiser said of AltEn. “They knew what they were doing.”

Monitoring health impacts

Even as the experts race to detoxify the AltEn wastewater storage lagoons, researchers say contaminated water has already moved far from Mead, potentially even into the aquifer that supplies water for cities and towns throughout the region. More could be leaching into the environment under the unlined piles of wet cake, they fear. Airborne transmission is also a possible culprit as some of the waste was incinerated by AltEn operators before the shutdown.

Researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical School are launching a study to try to assess if there are any long-term health impacts from the contamination. They will soon start collecting blood and urine from people in the area looking for pesticide contamination, and they have set up an online human health survey to gather more information. Researchers with the University of Nebraska and Creighton University are also testing animals and taking samples of water, soil and air. To truly understand the impacts on human and environmental health will take several years and up to $8m, they say.

“We think that some of the human health consequences of this are not going to show up in a few days, they are going to show up maybe in a few years,” said Eleanor Rogan, interim chair of the department of health promotion, College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Rogan and other researchers said they had run into multiple roadblocks, including opposition from the agricultural industry and many state lawmakers.

The research, which underscores the hazards that come with the chemically treated seeds, is being deemed as “anti-business”, according to University of Nebraska research scientist Judy Wu-Smart.

The legislature rejected a $10m funding proposal for the university research into AltEn impacts, approving instead $1m. If other funds are not found, the work will have to be curtailed, according to Rogan.

Carol Blood, a Democrat in the Nebraska legislature, is one lawmaker who supports the research and wants an investigation into the regulatory handling of AltEn.

Blood is now running for governor, promising to put an end to “secrecy” surrounding AltEn issues. “We want to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Blood. “We don’t know if someone in grade school now may not be able to have children when they grow up because of this. People may get cancer, people may get sick. We don’t want people to think that Mead is a bad place to live and raise a family. But it’s about having clean air to breathe and clean water to drink.”

This story is co-published with The New Lede, a journalism project of the Environmental Working Group