Contaminants from AltEn plant found in more homes, streams and soil

MEAD — Residents near the closed AltEn ethanol plant were told Monday night that pollutants found in homes in the area were “significantly higher” than homes in Omaha and another rural community, Kennard.

However, researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Creighton University said more research is needed to determine whether the relatively low concentrations of the class of pesticides called “neonicotinoids” are affecting the human health would be harmful if assumed for a long time. long-term exposure in the area.

AltEn ethanol plant
The AltEn ethanol plant south of Mead closed in February 2021. It is subject to a remediation order from the state environmental authorities. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska examiner)

Information is lacking on the effects of such chemicals, which coated seed corn from the AltEn plant and, after being used to make ethanol, were spread on local fields or piled in huge foul-smelling heaps around the plant.

‘new territory’

“This is new territory,” said Dr. Ali Khan, a public health expert at the UNMC, on such long-term exposure to neonicotinoids in a community.

Khan spoke after a 90-minute presentation by members of the AltEn Study Group, a collaboration of scientists from UNMC, Creighton, UNL and the Three Rivers Department of Health that received $1 million from the state Legislature to study the impact on the environment and to study wildlife and human health.

The AltEn plant was closed two years ago after 4 million gallons of contaminated sewage spilled into a nearby stream. Local residents were told Monday that pollutants had been found up to 6 miles away.

Since then, frustrated local residents have sought answers to many questions including: is our groundwater safe to drink and are some local health issues linked to the plant?

When will it be cleaned up?

A recurring question Monday night: When will the millions of gallons of sewage and 16-acre pile of contaminated corn waste, or “wet cake,” ever be cleaned up?

“This isn’t going to get any better until we figure out how to get rid of it,” said former state senator Jerry Johnson, now Wahoo Mayor and a member of the local board of natural resources.

Steve Mayfield, a 45-year-old electrician who has lived in Mead for decades, said that despite spraying a cap of cement-like material on the wet cakes over the past year, the foul smell is returning.

Drone photos shown at the meeting showed cracks in the posi-shell cover and dark spots where water had pooled. But residents have also been told that the sewage sprayed on local fields has been treated and deemed safe.

Combustion considered

The AltEn Facility Response Group, a collaboration of seed corn companies, appears to be considering using mobile incinerators to incinerate the estimated 85,000 tons of contaminated wet cake, according to a recent Lincoln Journal-Star report.

But Monday’s meeting focused on what investigators had uncovered since the last public meeting with residents in June. Here is some of what was discovered:

— Bee losses in nearby hives were higher compared to other hives maintained by UNL in Lincoln and Nebraska City. However, the overwintering survival time of bees in beehives near the AltEn site has steadily improved since the plant closed. It was 0% in winter 2020-21, then 30% in 2021-22 and 69% this winter so far.

“We’re seeing some recovery,” said Judy Wu-Smart, a UNL entomologist.

– Water tests at a nearby stream, Johnson Creek, showed the presence of 11 neonicotinoids, but those levels have dropped since April 2021 after the facility closed.

Still, soil core tests showed some contamination at depths of up to 30 feet, just above the level of the local aquifer. Officials said they are trying to get landowners permission to test areas where wet cake has been applied to fields, but have so far been unsuccessful.

Up to six miles away

– Testing of bullfrog tadpoles found neonicotinoids in a stream connected to the AltEn site six miles away. Extensive testing near drill pads in the Ashland area is being sought. Testing of songbird nests found the highest levels of pesticide residues near the AltEn site.

— A survey by the Centers for Disease Control in 2015-16 found that 49% of people had detectable levels of neonicotinoids in their urine, likely as a result of consuming products.

— Tests are planned in Creighton to determine whether natural bacteria can be used to remediate contaminated soil.

Covering the wet cake pile with the cement mix helped, but didn’t stop pollutants from leaching into the soil, said John Schalles, a Creighton environmental scientist.

“It’s gross stuff,” he said of the contaminated drain.

— Seventy-five percent of residents who responded to a recent survey said they were concerned about the pollutants’ impact on local health, drinking water and the environment. 17% of households reported chronic health problems since 2015, but only 8% believed it was related to elders and another 25% were unsure.

How far have pollutants spread?

Concerns were also raised Monday about how far pollutants had spread and whether they had affected drinking water supplies to Omaha and Lincoln, both of which have well fields downstream from the AltEn facility near Ashland.

– Swabs from 11 homes near the AltEn facility showed levels of neonicotinoids, while similar tests in homes in Kennard, another small farming community, and Omaha showed “virtually undetectable” levels.

However, levels found in a Mead home — 18 parts per billion dust inside and 59 ppb outside — were well below what is considered a concern by the US Federal Environmental Protection Agency, according to Dr. Eleanor Rogan from UNMC.

What’s not known, she said, is whether long-term exposure to low levels could cause health problems.

The main concerns, Khan said, are infants and pregnant women. In insects, neonicotinoids attack the central nervous system.

EPA ‘didn’t take them seriously’

“We checked to see if the[state]Environmental Protection Agency had any guidelines, and they really don’t have any,” Rogan said. “Unfortunately, I think the EPA didn’t take them seriously.”

Khan said he would like to see the state fund at least five to 10 years of health surveillance in the area to see if there are lingering effects from the neonicotinoids found in the water, homes and soil around Mead. Currently, the funding should only last until the end of 2023.

Officials at the meeting urged local residents, particularly those who may have worked at the AltEn plant, to sign up for a “medical registry” to track local health impacts.

They said a high participation rate is needed to determine whether the contamination has caused human health impacts.

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