For anyone whose travel bucket list includes Mead, Nebraska you might want to take a raincheck on that spot for now.
According to a recent report by The Guardian, the small farming community is being plagued by reports of dying bees and sick dogs “staggering about with dilated pupils.” What’s even more strange is that residents of Mead are coming down with unexplained nosebleeds.
Follow the rotting stench and you will find the source of the medical complaints: the ethanol plant AltEn.
Around the United States, there are some 203 ethanol plants distributed across 27 states. Together these plants produce a staggering 16.1 billion gallons of clean-burning renewable ethanol. The AltEn company is one of these hundreds of plants that converts corn into biofuel.
AltEn embroiled in complaints and inquiries
AltEn churns out around 25 million gallons of ethanol a year using high-starch grains. The process is lauded as a green and environmentally friendly source of fuel. Yet, last year alone around 13 ethanol plants closed around the country. AltEn has been the source of numerous complaints to both state and federal officials and is the subject of an open inquiry by a University of Nebraska researcher.
‘Recycling plant’ that dumps toxic waste
By selling itself as a “recycling plant,” AltEn gets free supplies of pesticide-treated seeds from agricultural companies which it turns into ethanol. The problem is these seeds are coated with insecticides and fungicide (some known as neonicotinoids or “neonics”) and create a waste product that is dangerously polluted. The product is too laden with pesticides to use as animal feed.
Instead, AltEn dumped the product — a stinking, bright green sludge of fermented grains — on nearby farm fields as “soil conditioner,” and the rest piled up at the plant.
Levels of neonics are ‘off the charts’
Dan Raichel is an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council monitoring the situation in Mead alongside other environmental protection groups. The group monitored the levels of neonics in the Mead water and environment, and according to Raichel, “Some of the levels recorded are just off the charts.”
The Environmental Protection Agency sets a benchmark of the quantity of neonics in food and water that is considered safe. The exact amount will depend on the specific pesticide, but they are around 70 parts per billion (ppb). The neonic known as clothianidin is only safe until 11ppb and for one called thiamethoxam the benchmark is 17.5 ppb.
Pesticide up to 11 parts per billion is safe — AltEn waste contains 427,000 parts per billion
Now, to put the situation in Mead into perspective, let’s take a look at the levels of neonics that AltEn have been dumping into the community. State environmental officials tested one of the hills of AltEn waste and found clothianidin at a 427,000 ppb (anything over 11 ppb is deemed unsafe). The Nebraska Department of agriculture ordered testing and found thiamethoxan at levels of 85,100 ppb.
AltEn pesticides harmful to humans, birds, mammals, and bees
At least four of the pesticides detected in the AltEn waste are known to be “detrimental to humans, birds, mammals, bees, freshwater fish” according to an October letter to AltEn by state regulators.
Neonics have long been a source of concern. Neonicotinoids are pesticides that affect the nervous systems of insects. In 2014, the European Food Safety Commission reported that certain neonicotinoid pesticides (acetamiprid and imidacloprid), known for killing bees, were also harmful to humans. The study warned that certain neonicotinoids could be dangerous to human health, “especially the developing brain of fetuses and young children.”
Residents of Mead fear their water supply is contaminated
The AltEn waste is not contained to the plant grounds. There are already reports that the waste has leached from the wastewater lagoons into nearby waterways. Mead residents now worry the water they and their families drink at home could be contaminated with the deadly pesticides.
The stockpile of AltEn waste is a source of growing concern to the community. Mead resident Brenda Halbmeier said “Pesticides and fungicides and it’s sitting on top of the aquifer that provides water to everyone southeast of here.”
Neighbors living near the plant have complained of their dogs getting sick, and there have been reports of strange illnesses and dead or dying birds.
The bees are dying
Judy Wu-Smart studies bee health at the University of Nebraska. She is gravely concerned about the situation in Mead and its wide-reaching impact. In an academic paper she shared with regulators Wu-Smart pointed out that just when AltEn began using the neonic-treated seeds, every single beehive in a nearby farm died off.
“There is a red flag here. The bees are just a bio-indicator of something seriously going wrong … [there is an] urgent need to examine potential impacts on local communities and wildlife.”
Could the ‘insect apocalypse’ spread to people?
Neonics can last for years in the environment. Alongside other pesticides, they have caused an “insect apocalypse” and these insecticides are linked to grave defects in white-haired deer. This does not bode well for the future impact of these chemicals on other large mammals — and humans.
Mead could be a harbinger of the future
According to the full Guardian report, the Nebraska department of environment and energy has no comment about the dying bees and has no “jurisdiction” on the topic. The state has commanded AltEn to dispose of its waste product at an approved waste disposal facility.
Yet, residents of Mead continue to complain of the growing piles of green waste that circle the AltEn plant.
Mead may suffer the first and greatest impact of this dangerous toxic waste. If companies like AltEn continue to ‘recycle’ seeds coated in pesticides by dumping them back into the environment, there will be grave consequences for the ecosystems and communities across the state and beyond.