MEAD, Neb. (DTN) -- The owners of a small ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska, that has become an environmental disaster are looking to sell off their adjoining 30,000-head cattle feedyard as the ethanol plant faces state litigation and angry residents.
AltEn LLC, a 24-million-gallon ethanol plant, remains idle and is facing a lawsuit from the state of Nebraska over millions of gallons of toxic water that spilled on Feb. 12-13, 2021, and 84,000 tons of distillers grains from treated corn seed piled on its property that is considered too toxic to feed to animals or spread on fields. The ethanol plant also owes more than $518,000 in back property taxes to Saunders County, Nebraska.
The ethanol plant was developed to support the feedyard, Mead Cattle Co., and both operations are owned by the same Kansas family, the Langleys. Following a lawsuit by the state and resident complaints, the Saunders County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday tabled a vote on a conditional use permit that would transfer operations for the feedyard to a Texas company, Champion Feeders. Supervisors required testing of lagoons and groundwater at the site and allowed the University of Nebraska Medical Center to conduct a study of the site.
"They are trying to get rid of assets," said Jody Weible, an early critic and community organizer who has questioned the safety of AltEn's operations to local residents.
Weible and others see the move to transfer a permit to a Texas company as a way for AltEn's owners to separate the feedyard, sell it off, then declare bankruptcy again on the ethanol plant and walk away from an environmental cleanup. "I'm concerned they are not going to clean up that pile," she said. "They are just going to leave it for us to clean up and they will not be accountable for anything. They will walk away from this for free and there will not be any repercussions for it."
OWES BACK TAXES
The Saunders County Treasurer's Office states AltEn owes two years of back taxes, which total $518,799 with interest. While ownership has been the same family, the treasurer's office shows Mead Cattle Co. is current on its taxes and has never been delinquent.
Yet, even as the state is suing AltEn and the ethanol plant is delinquent on taxes, Nebraska media reported this week that the Nebraska Department of Economic Development had given AltEn more than $210,000 in aid funds tied to COVID-19 relief.
Local problems with the ethanol plant began after it came out of bankruptcy in 2015 and started using discarded corn seeds treated with insecticides and fungicides. It reached a point in which the only corn AltEn processed was unused, treated seeds. Residents in Mead, which has just under 600 people, eventually began to be overcome by odors from the ethanol plant.
"It's like I've had allergies for the past four years, which is a not a lot of fun with COVID when you are coughing and sneezing all of the time," Weible said.
MEETING MONDAY NIGHT
On Monday night, about 60 residents met at a local church to learn more about the state of Nebraska's litigation against the ethanol plant. Residents also heard from university researchers who want to study the long-term health effects of exposure to tens of thousands of tons of seed treated with multiple forms of neonicotinoid pesticides and fungicides.
Experts who spoke Monday highlighted the longer the piles of treated distillers grains remain, the more the neonics and fungicides leach into the ground and potentially into the water table. Neonics are relatively water soluble and can flow into ground water, said John Schalles, a biology professor at Creighton University.
"The longer that sits on the ground and in lagoons that are leaking, the worse it gets," he said.
The seed was treated with varying combinations of insecticides and fungicides.
"We don't know a whole lot about the toxicology of fungicides," Schalles said.
IMACT ON BEES
Judy Wu-Smart, an extension entomologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, also runs the UNL Bee Lab at a research facility just down the road from the AltEn plant. Around 2017, the lab's bee colonies at that site started dying off. They haven't been able to keep a colony alive anywhere around that facility ever since. That includes more than 20 colonies set up last year in the area.
Last week, the University of Nebraska and Creighton University health researchers announced they would collaborate on a study of the health of people who live in and around Mead. The researchers are asking the state Legislature and other groups to fund the research, which would include health screening, as well as soil, air and water sampling in the area. Wildlife would also be tested.
"There are going to be national implications to what is happening in Nebraska right now," Wu-Smart said.
COLD WEATHER TRIGGERED RELEASE
The environmental problems at the plant heightened during the cold snap in February as a pipe burst, releasing as much as 4 million gallons of wastewater in the process. The busted pipe released a discharge from the feedyard and byproduct from AltEn's ethanol production at the time.
The Nebraska Attorney General's suit against AltEn seeks damages of up to $10,000 for environmental violations and seeks an injunction to remove the contaminated distillers grains from the site. However, the state cannot suggest where the toxic seed waste should go, said David Domina, an Omaha attorney. He also noted state laws are "woefully inadequate" to address all the problems at the ethanol plant.
RESPONSE FROM PLANT
In a response to the state's lawsuit, attorneys for AltEn denied ever producing 24 million gallons of ethanol annually. The response repeatedly "denies any inference that it violated applicable law" regarding the state prohibiting AltEn from applying distillers grains as a soil conditioner or using it for feed. The company agreed with the state's assessment that there has been 84,000 tons of distillers grains on the property, but AltEn also stated 40,000 tons have been taken to a solid waste facility. AltEn denied 18 different allegations by the state against the ethanol plant and asked that the state's complaint be dismissed.
OTHER ISSUES RAISED
Multiple residents saw their dogs get violently ill when AltEn's distillers grains were applied to a nearby acreage where their dogs would roam. The Nebraska Department of Agriculture had initially allowed the applications by classifying the product as a soil conditioner.
At Monday night's meeting, residents questioned why no state officials would meet with the group and they want some answers about the contamination levels, such as the risks to their groundwater. Currently, residents pay for any testing on their own.
Mead residents are getting support from environmental groups and university researchers, but they are not getting questions answered by any local, state or federal agency. At one time, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) had set up a meeting with residents, but it was canceled because state officials did not want NDEE to have such a meeting.
Residents have been told federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife cannot get engaged unless state officials invite them in to investigate.
Cody Morris moved his young family to Mead two years ago, seeking a small-town lifestyle. Since then, the entire family, including his kids -- ages 6 and 4 years -- have experienced chronic allergies with symptoms such as watery eyes and sneezing.
"As soon as you get into town, you feel the tingling and start sneezing," Morris told DTN. "So, what is coming out now kind of concerns us. It's scary. Something has to be done. I don't know what or how."
BANKRUPTCY IN 2007
When the Mead plant first opened in the early 2000s, it was promoted as a "closed loop" system in which Mead Cattle Co. would consume the distillers grains, but also provide energy to the plant through an aerobic digester. But the ethanol plant went into bankruptcy in 2007. AltEn was formed after the plant came out of bankruptcy proceedings.
AltEn began using treated seeds as early as 2015 and Mead's village council at that time requested meetings with the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy over odor complaints. "For three years, it's been pretty much a runaround," Weible said.
SEARCHED FOR SEED
Last year, AltEn sent letters to seed companies soliciting their discarded treated seed and agreeing to accept and dispose of the seeds at zero cost. The letter stated the byproducts would all be land-applied. AltEn by that point claimed it was handling as much as 98% of the discarded treated seeds in North America. Still, even as AltEn was soliciting seeds to use, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture had told the company to stop selling the distillers grains and stop applying it to soils because of the high concentrations of pesticides.
Nebraska lawmakers have introduced two bills to deal with the situation. One would prohibit the use of treated seed to make ethanol if the distilled grain is considered too toxic to feed to livestock or apply to the land. That bill has advanced unanimously and will likely be passed by the state's unicameral legislature. A second bill would also make seed companies liable for damage if their pesticide-treated seeds are not disposed of in a safe manner. That bill has not moved out of committee.
The ethanol plant was started by Dennis Langley, a Kansas businessman involved in both natural gas and biofuels, and a former Kansas Democratic Party chairman. Langley died in 2015. His wife, Lynette Shaw, son Sean Langley and stepson Tanner Shaw took over as the owners of Dennis Langley's LLCs. Tanner Shaw is listed as president of AltEn.
AltEn has been owned by the Langley and Shaw family through a layer of different LLCs, originally derived from E3 Biofuels LLC.
The Langleys and Shaws lived in the Kansas City, Missouri, suburb of Lake Quivera, Kansas. Their home was once listed as the most expensive home in Kansas, known as the "Spirit of Avalon." The home was put up for sale at $11.8 million in 2019. It still remains on the market but is priced now at $5.75 million.
DTN reached out multiple times to the Langley and Shaw family but did not receive a response. Scott Tingelhoff, an attorney listed as general manager of AltEn, also did not return a call seeking comment.
DTN also asked EPA Region 7 about its role in the investigation with state tests showing toxic levels of pesticides thousands of times higher than those deemed safe by EPA. A spokesperson for EPA said NDEE is the lead regulatory agency but EPA Region 7 is providing assistance at the request of NDEE "and is closely monitoring the situation at the facility." EPA did provide emergency assistance during the spill at the plant in February. "EPA was on site to assess the spill, collect additional samples, and consult on mitigation and cleanup efforts."
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Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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