For the people of Mead, Nebraska, the first sign of something wrong was the stench, the smell of something rotten. People have reported eye and throat irritation and nosebleeds. Then the bee colonies began to die, the birds and butterflies appeared disoriented, and the companion dogs got sick, staggering with dilated pupils.
There is no mystery as to the cause of the concerns in Mead, a farming community so small that its 500 residents call it a village, not a town.
After multiple complaints to state and federal officials and an investigation by a University of Nebraska researcher, all the evidence points to what should be an unlikely culprit – an ethanol plant which, like many others in the States- United, transforms corn into biofuel.
The company, called AltEn, is believed to be helpful to the environment, by using starch-rich grains such as corn to produce around 25 million gallons of ethanol annually, a practice that regulators generally view as an environmentally friendly source of. automotive fuel. Ethanol plants usually also produce a by-product called distillery grain for sale as a nutritious feed for livestock.
But unlike most of the 203 other ethanol plants in the United States, AltEn uses seeds coated with fungicides and insecticides, including those known as neonicotinoids, or neonics, in its production process.
Company officials have announced AltEn as a recycling place where farm businesses can dispose of excess supplies of pesticide-treated seeds, a strategy that has given AltEn a free supply of its ethanol, but also left it. with waste too loaded with pesticides to feed. animals.
Instead, AltEn has racked up thousands of pounds of a smelly, lime-green mash from fermented grains, distributing some to farm fields as a soil conditioner and accumulating the rest on his plant’s land.
It is these wastes that some researchers say dangerously pollute water and soil and are likely also a threat to the health of animals and people. They report tests commissioned by state officials that found neon lights in AltEn waste at levels several times higher than what is considered safe.
Some of the recorded levels are just off the charts Dan Raichel
Some of the recorded levels are just off the charts, said Dan Raichel, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who has worked with academics and other environmental groups to monitor the situation. in Mead. If I lived in this area with these levels of neonics in the water and the environment, I would be concerned about my own health.
Above all, Raichel and other observers say the situation in Mead is a warning sign, an example of the need for tighter regulation of pesticide-coated seeds that are marketed by large companies such as Bayer AG and Syngenta. .
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers neonics in food and water to be safe in a range of up to 70 parts per billion (ppb) depending on the specific pesticide. The agency sets different benchmarks for freshwater invertebrates of aquatic life. For the neonic known as clothianidin, the benchmark is 11ppb and 17.5ppb for a neonic called thiamethoxam.
On the AltEn property, state environmental officials recorded clothianidin levels at a staggering 427,000ppb when tested on one of AltEn’s large waste hills. Thiamethoxam was detected at 85,100ppb, according to tests commissioned by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.
In an AltEn wastewater lagoon, clothianidin was recorded at 31,000ppb and thiamethoxam at 24,000ppb. A third dangerous neonate called imidacloprid was also found in the lagoon, at 312ppb. The EPA aquatic life benchmark for imidacloprid is 0.385 ppb. The AltEns lagoon system holds approximately 175m gallons.
Elevated levels of 10 other pesticides were also found in the plant lagoon. At least four pesticides in the corn used by AltEn, including clothianidin and thiamethoxam, are known to be harmful to humans, birds, mammals, bees, freshwater fish and other living creatures, Regulators said in an October letter to AltEn.
State officials cited the plant for failing to comply with various rules to prevent pollution, and said in the October letter that they were concerned that AltEn was not properly disposing of the waste and noted the possibility of short-term and longer-term contamination. surface water and groundwater.
This is a really significant contamination event impacting local ecosystems and the community there Sarah Hoyle
It’s a really big contamination event that impacts local ecosystems and the community there, said Sarah Hoyle, who specializes in pesticide issues for the Xerces Society, a conservation organization based in the Oregon who is helping to find the problem in Mead.
Neither Scott Tingelhoff, chief executive of AltEn, nor two other plant officials responded to the Guardian’s multiple requests for comment.
Last year, Tingelhoff told a local TV station the company was working with state regulators to address concerns.
Residents of Mead say they are concerned about factory waste that has not remained on factory property. In addition to the quantities transported to farms to be distributed over the area, others appear to have been washed out and discharged from wastewater lagoons into adjacent waterways.
AltEn also applied its wastewater to the area. Some Mead residents fear that the well water their homes depend on is now contaminated, while researchers are also concerned about the potential contamination of an underground aquifer that supplies water to the US Midwest.
They are also unhappy with what they say have been over two years of regulatory failures to protect the community.
I had a lot of loathing from the people of the state, said Paula Dyas, a resident of the area, who filed a complaint with the state when her dogs fell ill after ingesting some of the food. waste that had been dumped in a nearby agricultural field. Her animals recovered, but were so ill that she feared lasting damage. There is simply no consideration as to how much of these chemicals is deposited on the earth and what it will ultimately do to animals, to wildlife, she said.
Jody Weible, former chair of Mead’s planning commission, has tried to enlist help from the state’s political leaders as well as regulators to deal with what she calls the poison coming from AltEn. The factory is about a mile from his 34 year old home.
I emailed the EPA, water, parks and conservation officials, pretty much everyone I could think of, Weible said. They all say there is nothing they think they can do about it.
Other neighbors living near the plant have informed state officials of strange diseases and dead or dying birds.
After receiving several complaints, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture ordered AltEn to stop distributing its waste in farm fields. But this means that more and more are accumulating on the site of the ethanol plant or pouring into its lagoons. AltEn has also started incinerating some of the waste and storing the biochar in bags outside on the plant’s property, a practice that further worries residents of the area.
State regulators say they have not tested water, soil, or vegetation outside the plant’s property and have no knowledge of the wider potential damage from the spread of AltEn waste. But Judy Wu-Smart, a University of Nebraska researcher who studies bee health, carried out tests and said there was no doubt the plant’s contamination had spread much further than its limits.
In an academic article she shared with regulators and other researchers, Wu-Smart said every beehive maintained on a university research farm about a mile from Mead died, losses that coincided with the use by AltEns of neonic treated seeds. She also reported a shortage of other common insects in the area and recorded video recordings of birds and butterflies in the area that appear to be suffering from neurological disorders.
After finding neonic residue in the vegetation and tracing waterways that connect the university grounds to AltEn, Wu-Smart fears that a large contamination event with high levels of neonics could wreak havoc on the environment , and possibly people living in the area.
Bees are just a bioindicator of a serious problem Judy Wu-Smart
There is a red flag here. Bees are just a bioindicator of a serious problem, Wu-Smart said. There is an urgent need to examine the potential impacts on local communities and wildlife, she said.
Neonics are taken up by the roots of plants as they grow and can persist for years in the environment and are accused, along with other pesticides, of a so-called insect apocalypse. Insecticides have also been linked to serious defects in white-tailed deer, compounding concerns about the chemicals’ potential to harm large mammals, including humans.
The European Union banned the outdoor use of the neonics clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam in 2018, and the United Nations says neonics are so dangerous they should be severely restricted. But in the United States, neonics are widely used.
Not just Nebraska in danger
Meghan Milbrath, assistant professor of entomology at Michigan State University, said the implications of AltEns practices extend far beyond Mead.
As we’ve seen here, improperly treated treated seeds can lead to significant contamination that disrupts ecosystems and puts communities at risk, Milbrath said.
The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) said it did not have an opinion on the source of bee mortality and did not have jurisdiction over the matter. The state agency said it was continuing to review the operations and activities of the facility.
And although the state did not prevent AltEn from absorbing pesticide-coated seeds for ethanol production, it ordered AltEn to implement a groundwater monitoring plan and other measures to mitigation, although the State noted multiple compliance issues. The state also ordered AltEn to dispose of its waste in a licensed solid waste disposal area.
Residents are wondering if this will happen or not and report that large piles of green waste are still ringing in the facility.
Neither Tingelhoff, the chief executive of AltEn, nor two other factory officials responded to a request for comment.
But state officials declined to be interviewed for this story, although Blayne Glissman, an NDEE waste permit specialist, offered a defense for the ethanol operation, saying he believed officials from AltEn were just people who worked hard and tried to make a living.
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