Water tower overlooking Mead, NE
Concerns over water quality in Mead, NE, have arisen as a result of the AltEn Ethanol plant located a few miles south of town. Photo courtesy of Tricia Kruse

Terry Hickman, a Mead Public Schools teacher, taught his students in January about the harsh environmental effects of toxic waste near Love Canal, a neighborhood of Niagara Falls, in 1970s New York. Now the village of Mead, located about 30 miles east of Omaha, and its 600 residents are finding themselves in a similarly dangerous situation.

The source of the environmental danger to the Nebraska village is an ethanol plant located just a few miles south of town. AltEn, the company that owns the plant, uses corn to produce its ethanol. However, instead of using field corn, the company has been using seed corn treated with a variety of fungicides and insecticides.

Jody Weible, who lives less than a mile away from the ethanol plant, said the situation has been happening for years and resulted in legitimate health concerns for those living nearby.

“Our neighbor’s daughter was living at home the first year it was sprayed in the fields, and it plugged up her eyes,” Weible said. “They actually had pus coming from them. They went to the doctor and were told it was environmental. She never had any problems like that before and hasn’t since she moved away.”

The AltEn ethanol plant began operating in 2015, and Mead residents began noticing the smell shortly thereafter. Weible said that the production of ethanol using corn is supposed to be a clean and environmentally friendly process, but the ethanol plant’s use of treated seed corn has had the opposite effect.

The ethanol plant was temporarily ordered to shut down production earlier this month. According to Weible, heaps of fermented grain simply lay unprotected on the ground of the plant, releasing an awful odor that residents can smell from miles away and posing a danger to the aquifer beneath it.

Weible served on the Mead Planning Commission for more than two decades, and she said when the ethanol plant first came to town, it seemed like a great idea. However, she said AltEn did not disclose the fact that they were using treated seed corn instead of field corn, and it wasn’t until people started noticing the smell that they realized something was wrong.

She described numerous other examples of health concerns she said resulted from the plant, including a cough she’s developed that doctors have told her was a result of the environment. She also stated that people get nosebleeds constantly; her pastor developed sinus issues and the nearby elementary school couldn’t open its windows because the smell was so invasively bad.

Since early 2018, Weible has been an active participant in raising awareness of what was happening. She and other community members had contacted the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the governor, but she said nobody paid any attention until an article was published by The Guardian.

WOWT in Omaha first reported on the smells in the Mead area around a year ago. The article from The Guardian wasn’t published until Jan. 10 of this year.

An order from the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy shut down the plant Feb. 4 stating that it was “likely to cause and may have already caused pollution to the airs, waters and land of the state.”

A report from AltEn General Manager Scott Tingelhoff on Thursday stated a frozen pipe burst at the ethanol plant earlier this week. An estimated 4 million gallons of material are believed to have been released, traveling through nearby waterways 4½ miles before stopping. Tingelhoff said AltEn employees have been using pumps to recover the material.

Janece Mollhoff, an Ashland resident who is concerned about the environmental consequences of the plant, said the Nebraska Legislature needs to take action to stop incidents like this from happening again.

“Right now, any community in Nebraska could have this problem,” Mollhoff said. “If any ethanol plant decides to use seed corn, they are allowed to. It would be the same end result.”

She said the Nebraska Legislature needs to conduct a comprehensive water quality study to see what potential effects the AltEn plant has had on the Ogallala Aquifer and local water supplies, in addition to passing LB507, a bill that has been introduced which would prevent the use of treated seed corn in ethanol production.

Mollhoff said she and other community members have been talking about these issues for years, but they have been falling on deaf ears.

“Why hasn’t something been done sooner? Why were all the citations issued and then never followed up on until last week?” Mollhoff said. “(AltEn) were given ultimatums and told several times that they needed to comply within 30-60 days, but it wasn’t until two years later that they were shut down.”

As a teacher, Hickman said that the current situation near Mead is something that should be learned from.

“Some community members have reached out to local media, and they have kind of covered it more as ‘residents complain of smell,’ and it took that Guardian article that focused on the toxicity for it to really gain people’s attention,” Hickman said. “I’m grateful for that, but people in the community were voicing their frustration long ahead of that.”

The Saunders County Board of Supervisors announced a public meeting regarding the AltEn Ethanol plant. The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on March 1 in the Mead High School gymnasium.

Janece Mollhoff is elected to the OPPD Board of Directors, and she said none of her comments or actions reflect any official views of OPPD or the Board of Directors at OPPD.

Senior, Journalism and Film Studies Major, Culture Reporter for The Daily Nebraskan