Mead is a village in Saunders County, Nebraska, with a population of just 580 people.1 Their website focuses on what they do best: small town living. “If you’re ready to escape the city, come join us in Mead, Nebraska,” their official site reads.2 This close-knit farming community is also home to AltEn,3 an ethanol plant that is producing toxic byproducts that are poisoning the community.
“It’s definitely within sniffing distance. I come out here to do yard work and I can barely breathe,” Jody Weible, who lives half a mile from the plant, told a news outlet.4
The stench is coming from a byproduct of ethanol production called distillers grain, which is produced after the starch is removed from corn. Also known as “wet cake,” distillers grain is sold by most U.S. ethanol plants as livestock feed, but AltEn’s waste is different.
The company secured a free source of corn to make ethanol by billing itself as a “recycling” plant that accepts seeds treated with pesticides, including toxic neonicotinoids. The resulting waste is too contaminated to sell as feed for animals, so AltEn has been spreading the waste on farmland and holding the rest of it — a “smelly, lime-green mash of fermented grains” — on the grounds surrounding its plant.5
Pesticide Contamination ‘Off the Charts’
Neonicotinoids are the most widely used insecticides worldwide.6 If you were to visit a conventional farm, you’d likely see evidence of their use in the form of brightly colored red corn seeds and blue soybean seeds, which are color-coded to denote treatment with neonicotinoids. Even when used agriculturally, these seeds have been found to harm pollinators like bees at alarming rates.7
There are other concerns as well, like the fact that planting neonicotinoid seeds kills off insects that prey on slugs — prominent corn and soybean pests — thereby reducing crop yields.8
They’re also known to persist in the environment. When researchers screened oilseed crops in the European Union for neonicotinoids during the five-year moratorium, they found neonicotinoids in all the years it was banned in bee-attractive crops, with residue levels depending on soil type and increasing with rainfall.
They concluded that this poses a “considerable risk for nectar foraging bees” and supports “the recent extension of the moratorium to a permanent ban in all outdoor crops.”9 In 2018, the European Union banned the outdoor use of three neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam), while the United Nations has also recommended severely restricting their use.10
They’re still widely used in the U.S., however, and in Mead, where the excess waste from the treated seeds is piling up, astronomical levels of the chemicals have been detected.
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) attorney Dan Raichel told The Guardian, “Some of the levels recorded are just off the charts. If I were living in that area with those levels of neonics going into the water and the environment I would be concerned for my own health.”11
In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency has set an upper “safety” limit of 70 parts per billion (ppb) for neonicotinoids in food and water, while levels deemed “safe” for aquatic life are capped at 11 ppb for clothianidin and 17.5 ppb for thiamethoxam. Yet, The Guardian reported:12
“On the AltEn property, state environmental officials recorded levels of clothianidin at a staggering 427,000ppb in testing of one of the large hills of AltEn waste. Thiamethoxam was detected at 85,100ppb, according to testing ordered by the Nebraska department of agriculture.
In an AltEn wastewater lagoon, clothianidin was recorded at 31,000ppb and thiamethoxam at 24,000ppb. A third dangerous neonic called imidacloprid was also found in the lagoon, at 312ppb. The EPA aquatic life benchmark for imidacloprid is 0.385ppb. AltEn’s lagoon system holds approximately 175m gallons.
High levels of 10 other pesticides were also found in the plant lagoon. At least four pesticides in the corn used by AltEn, including clothianidin and thiamethoxam, are known to be ‘detrimental to humans, birds, mammals, bees, freshwater fish’ and other living creatures, state regulators noted in an October letter to AltEn.”
Sick Dogs, Dead Bees and Birds Reported
The area’s residents are already experiencing ill effects they attribute to the pesticide-laden waste. Pet dogs have become sick after ingesting waste dumped on farm fields, and dying birds have also been reported.
Nebraska’s department of agriculture eventually told AltEn to stop spreading the waste on fields, so the company piled up more of the waste on site as well as began incinerating it or storing it offsite in “biochar” bags.13
State regulators aren’t monitoring for contamination near AltEn’s Mead plant, but researcher Judy Wu-Smart, with the University of Nebraska’s department of entomology, believes area insects are being decimated. The university has a research farm about 1 mile from the city, where every beehive has died, and the bee deaths are associated with AltEn’s usage of pesticide-treated seeds.
She also has evidence of birds and butterflies that appear to be neurologically damaged, and found residues of neonicotinoids in plants, which she traced to waterways connecting the land to AltEn. In an interview with The Guardian, she called the findings a red flag, noting, “The bees are just a bio-indicator of something seriously going wrong.”14
AltEn Given Two Months to Clean Up Waste
Children and adults living in Mead have also reported illnesses that occurred after the ethanol plant arrived, while the stench from the waste has caused people to move and businesses to close. Schoolchildren often cannot go outside because of the smell alone, and there’s a high likelihood that local air and water are now contaminated.
The Guardian’s exposé was published January 10, 2021. At the time, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) said they had no opinion on the area’s bee deaths and did not have jurisdiction in the matter, but were reviewing AltEn’s operations and activities.
NDEE waste permits specialist Blayne Glissman also told The Guardian that AltEn officials were “hard-working people trying to make a living.”15
On January 12, 2021, News Channel Nebraska reported that NDEE cited AltEn for noncompliance of pollution rules due to waste at the plant contaminating air and water, and gave the company until March 2021 to clean up the pollution. AltEn said they’re “on schedule” and working with NDEE to do so.16 In a statement, Malia Libby, a conservation associate with Environmental America, condemned AltEn, stating they should have known better:17
“Residents of Mead, Neb., are experiencing a significant threat to their personal health and to the safety of pets, bees and wildlife in the surrounding area. And the sad reality is that this threat is both unnecessary and avoidable.
Coating corn seeds with bee-killing neonics has become common practice for seed companies, often leaving farmers with little choice but to spread these chemicals in their fields, whether the pesticides are needed or not.
And when the seeds go unused by farmers, we end up with disasters like this. AltEn should have known better. This small town in Nebraska is the latest example for why America needs to rethink how food is grown in this country.”
US Farmland 48 Times More Toxic Than It Was 25 Years Ago
From 1992 to 2014, researchers found that synthetic insecticide use shifted from mostly organophosphorus pesticides to a mix of neonicotinoids and pyrethroids. This shift, they believe, is the reason why agricultural lands are now 48 times more toxic than they were a quarter-century ago, as in 2014, neonicotinoids represented up to 99% of the land’s total toxic load.18
“Our screening analysis demonstrates an increase in pesticide toxicity loading over the past 26 years, which potentially threatens the health of honey bees and other pollinators and may contribute to declines in beneficial insect populations as well as insectivorous birds and other insect consumers,” they noted19 — concerns that have been echoed by similar studies.
One of the observed effects of neonicotinoids in bees is a weakening of the bees’ immune systems.20 Forager bees may bring pesticide-laden pollen back to the hive, where it’s consumed by all of the bees.
About six months later, their immune systems fail, and they end up contracting secondary infections from parasites, mites, viruses, fungi and bacteria. The chemicals have also been shown to trigger immunosuppression in the queen bee, possibly leading to an impaired ability to resist diseases.21
“Neonicotinoids are suspected to pose an unacceptable risk to bees, partly because of their systemic uptake in plants,” a study published in Nature revealed in 2015.22 Other species are also at risk. For instance, researchers found annual catches of smelt from Lake Shinji in Japan fell by 90% in the 10 years after the application of neonicotinoids to adjacent rice paddies.23,24
An exposé by The Intercept,25 which obtained lobbying documents and emails, revealed an extensive playbook used by the pesticide industry to downplay the pesticides’ harms by influencing beekeepers, regulators and academia. Meanwhile, bees and other pollinators are still in decline and the pesticide industry has gotten richer:
“The global neonic market generated $4.42 billion in revenue in 2018, roughly doubling over the previous decade, according to new figures provided to The Intercept from Agranova, a research firm that tracks the industry.”
Ethanol, Neonicotinoids Pose an Ecosystem-Wide Threat
Plants take up only about 5% of the neonicotinoids’ active ingredient, which leaves the rest to be widely dispersed into the environment.26 Worldwide, more than 40% of insect species are threatened with extinction in the next few decades.27 Researchers cited “compelling evidence” that agricultural intensification is the main driver of population declines in birds, small mammals and insects.
In order of importance, habitat loss due to land converted to intensive agriculture, as well as urbanization, are major problems, but the next most significant contributor is pollution, primarily that from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.28 Ethanol is advertised as an environmentally friendly solution, but it’s actually part of the problem because it’s driving valuable grassland to be converted into chemical-heavy corn crops.
Between 2008 and 2013, wild bees declined 23% in the U.S., particularly in the Midwest, Great Plains and the Mississippi valley, where grain production, primarily corn for biofuel, nearly doubled during the same period.29 Further, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), more than 8 million acres of grassland and wetlands have been converted to corn from 2008 to 2011.30
Overall, since the U.S. government began requiring ethanol in fuel in 2007, corn (and soy) crops have taken over more than 1.2 million acres of grassland.31 Converting more diverse grasslands into corn crops for biofuels is the opposite of what’s needed to save the environment — and creating ethanol out of excess neonicotinoid-treated seeds represents one of the worst outcomes of all.
Adding insult to injury, an investigation by the U.S. EPA even found that treating soybean seeds with neonicotinoids provides no significant financial or agricultural benefits for farmers.32 Regenerative farming, on the other hand, improves biodiversity of the soil, does not harm the environment and increases farmers’ net profits, a win-win situation for all. As Environment America’s Libby said:33
“We need to assist farmers in transitioning to healthier, sustainable agriculture practices, which can dramatically reduce the need for pesticides and remove residual chemicals from the environment.
The USDA has programs to help farmers embrace crop diversity, prairie strips, cover crops and more, but this horrible scenario in Mead reminds us that we must move faster. This can be done if Congress decides to deeply invest in sustainable farming.”