Nebraska officials have approved a preliminary plan to treat 150 million gallons of contaminated water at the defunct AltEn ethanol plant in eastern Nebraska, just a week after officials from two states were able to halt plans by AltEn’s owner to sell potentially pesticide-contaminated biochar from the facility.
A group comprised of major seed companies and a remediation company continue to work with Nebraska state regulators to clean up the ethanol plant, which had accepted pesticide-treated corn seed for multiple years to process into ethanol at the 25-million-gallon plant.
The primary goal of the current cleanup efforts at AltEn involves trying to “effectively manage water contained in the site’s lagoons.” The facility is storing more than 150 million gallons of untreated water in three primary lagoons and one emergency lagoon built on the site. A separate remediation plan will still be needed to remove roughly 84,000 tons of pesticide-contaminated wet cake stacked at the ethanol plant’s property just outside of Mead, Nebraska, about 20 miles west of the Omaha city limits.
One result of processing treated seed was lagoons filled with pesticide-laden water and wet cake also considered too toxic to be spread on area farm ground. Nebraska officials sued last year to shut down the plant after a spill from one of its lagoons.
ATTEMPT TO SELL SUPERSACKS
Despite concerns about materials at the plant, AltEn’s president, Tanner Shaw, in December informed Nebraska regulators that he had plans to sell 600 “supersacks” of biochar from treated seed even though tests from the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy showed the biochar had elevated levels of neonicotinoid pesticides.
Shaw planned to sell the biochar to a Kansas farmer, Brady Yingling, who operates a farm and ranch operation near Topeka, Kansas, as well as a lawn-care company. Shaw informed Nebraska regulators in December that Yingling’s company, B Cole Agricultural, had agreed to remove all of the biochar from the ethanol plant. The biochar would then be applied as a soil amendment for corn and/or soybean ground at a rate of no more than 1,000 pounds an acre.
Nebraska officials had notified Shaw and AltEn managers in the past that the biochar should be treated as a solid waste and sent to a permitted landfill.
AltEn, in a Dec. 27, 2021, letter claimed that its testing showed the biochar process successfully changes the contaminated product to nondetectable and any positive lab results for pesticides “must be due to the gasification process.”
Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) asked for analytical data to demonstrate the biochar process destroyed the pesticide contamination in the bagged biochar stored at a hoop building on site. Nebraska officials also asked AltEn to disclose the NDEE sampling results to show the presence of pesticides to the potential buyer of the bagged biochar.
Shaw, so far, has not provided Nebraska officials with any lab results to contradict the test results from NDEE.
Kansas officials in late December contacted Yingling after receiving analytical reports from NDEE regarding the biochar that was produced from “neonicotinoid-contaminated distillers grain” from AltEn’s plant. The Kansas Bureau of Waste Management told Yingling that it concurred with NDEE’s view “and would require any of the biochar transported to Kansas to be disposed at a permitted municipal solid waste landfill.”
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Yingling called a Nebraska inspector on Jan. 6 to let officials know he would not be taking any of the biochar. Yingling explained to the Nebraska inspector that he didn’t know the material had contained pesticides until Kansas officials alerted him to the situation at AltEn. Yingling noted he was seeking to maintain an eco-friendly environment, and also expressed his own concerns about the neonicotinoid risks because of 4-H projects involving children.
“It was not disclosed in any manner of the risks associated with this product,” Yingling said in an email to Nebraska officials. “The Neonics is paramount as we have a great deal of insects that aid in our farm production.”
Shaw did not respond to an email from DTN seeking comment. Shaw has not made any public statements about AltEn, its environmental contamination or remediation plans for the facility. He has maintained contact with Nebraska officials, according to emails and letters posted on NDEE’s website.
AFRG PLANS APPROVED
Despite the problems between NDEE and Shaw over biochar, the state on Jan. 14 went ahead and approved plans by the AltEn’s “Facility Response Group,” — AFRG, a group headed by seed companies and remediation engineers — to treat 150 million gallons of pesticide-contaminated water now stored at four lagoons on the AltEn property.
After months of revising plans to treat and remove the water, NDEE agreed to a plan that would allow AFRG to treat the water to “significantly reduce pesticide residues and organic material” then land apply it as irrigation water on area farm fields. NDEE agreed to the project if it meets all permit requirements.
“When treated wastewater is applied at the prescribed rates, meets setbacks and follows the approach, then the department does not anticipate any negative impacts from pesticides. The treated effluent must meet the proposed thresholds for application of pesticides …” NDEE stated.
Under the plans, the remediation would apply a maximum of 2 inches of treated water on crops during the season, or a total of 54,286 gallons per acre.
To remove all 150 million gallons within one growing season, that would require about 2,763 acres of crops. Irrigation would have to halt within 30 days of harvest, but additional treated water could be applied on fields after harvest. The contracts with growers would also require adding fall cover crops as well, but not cover crops with flowering plants that would attract pollinators.
The group overseeing the cleanup and the state of Nebraska also have some differences about just how long the seed companies will continue to pay for the remediation. In an “Interim Remedial Action Plan” dated in November, state officials informed the AFRG that it would also be expected to prepare a final remediation plan for the site and propose a way to get rid of the wet cake and lagoon sludge.
State officials asked the AFRG to change language in its proposed plan that had stated the final remediation plan “will be useful for the State of Nebraska to provide a basis for pursuing funding and other approaches for its long-term management of the site.”
Nebraska officials wanted the language revised to remove references for state funding and rephrase it instead to, “The final RAP (Remedial Action Plan) will propose a plan for final disposition of the wet cake and lagoon sludge.”
While posting correspondence about the cleanup on their website, officials from the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy have declined repeatedly to talk about the cleanup situation at AltEn.
NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE ACTIONS
Last year, the Nebraska Legislature passed a bill banning the use of treated corn seeds at ethanol plants. State Sen. Carol Blood of Omaha has introduced three bills since the beginning of the year tied to AltEn. On Tuesday, she introduced a bill that would appropriate $10 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to the University of Nebraska Medical Center to study long-term environmental, ecological and human health effects tied to the production of ethanol from treated seeds and the storage of byproducts, as well as the effects of polluted groundwater, soil and air.
Earlier in the month, Blood had also introduced a bill to extend product liability from four years to 10 years for exposure to certain chemicals, such as pesticides. Another bill would prohibit granting conditional use permits or zoning exemptions to people or companies that are delinquent on their property taxes.
AltEn currently owes $871,584 in back taxes and interest on its property in Saunders County, Nebraska. According to the Saunders County Treasurer’s Office, AltEn has unpaid property taxes going back to 2018 on one 97-acre parcel and unpaid taxes going back to 2019 on another 57-acre parcel.
Blood also has asked her colleagues in the Legislature to create a special committee to look into the AltEn situation to study when certain permits can be revoked, as well as whether the state should develop a plan to protect pollinators from harmful practices. One of the ways the AltEn situation came to public attention was because a researcher raised concerns about dozens of bee colonies dying at a nearby University of Nebraska research station.
Other DTN articles on AltEn from 2021:
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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