Residents of Mead, a small town east of Omaha, refuse to give up their fight against the AltEn ethanol plant located just south of town.
The ethanol plant, which opened in 2015, has come under fire in recent months for using seedcorn treated with pesticides and fungicides in its production, as opposed to the field corn used in similar plants across the Cornhusker state. The production resulted in green masses of waste laying on the ground of the AltEn plant. The effects of this waste, including run-off, pollution and odor, extend far beyond AltEn property, causing concerns about the health and environmental impacts on the local community.
Thirteen grassroots organizations, including Bold Nebraska, the Nebraska Farmers Union and Concerned Citizens of Mead, sponsored a town hall meeting April 12 to give residents an opportunity to discuss their concerns regarding the ethanol plant. Former state senator and Sierra Club lobbyist Al Davis moderated the meeting, which included seven other panelists.
- Jody Weible, a local resident who has led the charge calling for state and federal investigations into the plant;
- Paula Dyas, also a local resident and senior scientist at Merck Animal Health whose dogs became ill after consuming soil near AltEn;
- Leesa Zalesky, a retired investigative journalist with experience covering the agriculture industry;
- Janece Molhoff, an Ashland resident who completed a water quality study identifying gaps in safeguards for Nebraska water;
- Judy Wu-Smart, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and manager of a UNL Bee Lab near Mead where every hive since 2017 has collapsed;
- John Schalles, a professor of biology from Creighton University; and
- Dave Domina, an attorney with Domina Law Group in Omaha.
The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy ordered the AltEn plant to shut down in early February. A week later a pipe burst at the plant, spilling an estimated 4 million gallons of material, which then traveled up to 4 miles downstream from the plant. Most of the spill was contained to the ground of the Mead Cattle Company. The Nebraska Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit against AltEn in early March, after the ethanol plant missed a March 1 deadline to dispose of the tons of pesticide-laden byproduct found at the facility.
Residents of Mead have been complaining of the smell and raising concerns about health effects since 2018, but little was done until an article about the issue was published in The Guardian earlier this year.
During the panel, Weible described the smell as “Dead, rotten, sweet, acidic. All in one. It was awful.”
More than 50 people attended the town hall meeting, which ran for over two hours and was live-streamed on Facebook Live and YouTube as well.
Topics discussed during the town hall ranged from the specific toxins that are potentially infecting the local environment, to the long-term effects expected as a result of the plant, to what’s being done on a state level to solve the issue and what local residents can do to raise awareness.
Mostly, residents were concerned, angry and fed up with what resident Cody Morris described as AltEn’s “willful, negligent disregard for human life and the environment.”
There were no representatives from AltEn present at the meeting, and they did not immediately respond for a comment.
Throughout the evening there was a sense of urgency in the air. Morris’s sentiments were echoed by numerous attendees. There were complaints about lack of action from the state legislature, Gov. Pete Ricketts, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as locally elected and appointed government officials.
Domina said the Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson’s lawsuit against AltEn seeks specific remedies but it is handcuffed by current state laws.
“That is all the power that we’ve given to our Attorney General, to enforce the law that is woefully inadequate for this problem,” Domina said. “There are only a few solutions to that kind of thing and they all involve changing the law. Changing the law only happens positively if people insist that it change and don’t default that work to huge businesses and corporations.”
Domina later compared the situation with AltEn to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, saying that residents need to stay with it and keep contacting their elected officials until something gets done.
Following the town hall, Weible expressed a sense of optimism about the future of the community’s fight against AltEn.
“We’re making progress on what we can do,” Weible said. “We’re trying to organize a Mead community group that can start going after the state attorney general, if it’s him that needs to invite the EPA. That should’ve been done a year ago. We’re going to start applying pressure.”