‘We want it back to the way it was’: The American village destroyed by toxic waste | pollution

FOr a visitor to this rural eastern part NebraskaFresh air, blue skies, and endless stretch of farm fields look like unpolluted landscapes. But for the people who live here, it is undeniable that this is an environmental disaster that researchers fear may affect future generations.

It’s been just over a year since the state Organizers intervene to close An AltEn LLC ethanol plant in the suburbs of Mead, Nebraska, a small village of about 500 people near Omaha. The plant was found to be the source Huge amounts of toxic waste covered with pesticides, which were stored in shallow lakes and accumulated in mounds of lime green mash. That waste then Accidentally spilled and intentionally spread Throughout the region, including agricultural fields and waterways that provide drinking water to people and wildlife several miles downstream.

Undergo a huge cleaning operation that could cost Maybe 100 million dollars Or more, according to Bill Thorson, head of the village council. “The stench will be so intense that your eyes will burn here in the city,” Thorson said in a recent interview. “Let’s clean this up.”

Signs of influence on this community are everywhere.

The farm owners abandoned a home after their young children developed health problems; A pond full of fish and frogs is now empty of all life; University researchers collect blood and urine from residents to analyze for contaminants.

A family miles from the factory said they now only drink water from plastic bottles because tests show chemical contamination from the drinking well. “We want it to go back to how it was,” Stan Kaiser, a resident of the area, told the Guardian. “It shouldn’t be asking for too much.”

Crews of environmental engineers filter millions of gallons of water through newly installed treatment units and are adopting technologies seen at some US Superfund sites to contain and control waste. Measures include Use a helicopter To drop a temporary protective veneer-like layer of cement, fiber and clay on more than 16 acres of waste piles.

An aerial view of the AltEn plant in Mead, Nebraska.
An aerial view of the AltEn plant in Mead, Nebraska. Photo: Courtesy of John Shales

Questions about the best way forward divided this community of about 500 people. Some are asking the Federal Environmental Protection Agency to announce a Superfund site in Mead, while others say such a move would only add to costs and bureaucracy and reduce property values.

State regulators plan to hold a public hearing at the Mead High School gymnasium on April 27 as part of an effort to hear concerns. The organizers also provide “information and updates” to the community on a specific webpage on cleaning. Organizers say they check the site three times a week to try to prevent further escape of toxins.

However, the researchers say it’s not clear if or how all the damage can be erased, and the situation underscores how difficult – and possibly impossible – it is to truly escape the pollution from pesticides and other chemicals that have become ubiquitous in our environment, answering questions about the effects health.

“We are using and releasing more chemicals into the environment than ever before, and we know very little about the long-term effects of exposure,” said Daniel Snow, an environmental chemist and director of the Water Science Laboratory at the University of Nebraska.

Neurotoxins in water

The problem with AltEn is a strategy that has challenged normal industry practices. AltEn Advise big seed companies They can get rid of unwanted stocks of corn seed and other types of seed that are covered in high concentrations of fungicides and pesticides by “recycling” them for use in the production of AltEn biofuels.

These treated seeds are widely used by farmers to try to protect crops from insects and diseases, but environmental advocates view them as harmful and unnecessary.

The seed coatings on AltEn discarded products contained concentrated amounts of several insecticides known as neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” which can It has neurological effects on humans and animals.

neonicotinoids used via On an estimated 150 million acres of US farmland, scientific research has shown that it is contributing to the decline of important pollinators such as honeybees. While some countries have banned some use of neon pesticides, the US government has done so Suggest allowing extended use.

So while the strategy gave AltEn a supply of its own ethanol, it also left the plant with toxic wastewater and more than 80,000 pounds of a pesticide-laden solid by-product or “wet cake,” piled in piles around the plant’s property.

State officials registered neonics in AltEn waste at levels several times higher than what is considered safe. For neonicene known as clothanidine, the regulatory standard is 11 parts per billion, but AltEn waste contains clothanidine at 427,000 parts per billion, for example, according to state records.

Regulatory documents show that plant operators spread some waste material to farm fields in the area and further AltEn properties flowed through a series of events that included torrential rain and pipe ruptures. Regulators finally closed the plant in early 2021.

Scientist John Challis of Creighton University is part of a research team studying the effects of AltEn pollution in Mead, Nebraska.
Scientist John Challis of Creighton University is part of a research team studying the effects of AltEn pollution in Mead, Nebraska. Photography: Brian Bell

The former AltEn operators, who are now being sued by the Nebraska Attorney General for multiple alleged environmental violations, cannot be reached for comment. AltEn’s lawyers also did not respond to a request for comment.

Six of the world’s largest seed companies have lawsuits filed against AltEn, alleging that plant operators violated contracts and did not dispose of chemically treated seeds safely. The companies, which include owner Monsanto Bayer AG and China-owned Syngenta, are paying for and organizing the cleanup effort through an alliance they call AltEn Facilities Response Group (AFRG).

in her lawsuit Against AltEn, Syngenta claims that plant operators left the property with “significant environmental risks” that include “thousands of tons of untreated wet cakes on property in improperly managed and insufficiently secured piles” and “lakes full of sewage and at risk of collapse”.

Besides covering the wet, toxin-infested cake with a makeshift crust, contractors hired by AFRG built a new lined pond system at the AltEn site, treated 14 million gallons of sewage, and began disposing of treated water by applying it to the area’s fields, among other measures. . They aren’t yet sure how to get rid of the wet cake, but they are analyzing options, according to Don Gunster, project coordinator with environmental consultancy NewFields, which works for AFRG along with other engineering and scientific firms that specialize in environmental cleanups.

“Our efforts are beginning to make an important difference at the site,” said Junster. The top priority, he said, is to “ensure the safety of the community and the surrounding environment while addressing site conditions caused by AltEn.”

personal losses

Ray and Emily Loftus They gave up their dream home, just half a mile from AltEn, after their youngest child started having respiratory problems, and they decided the old farmhouse with its large yard was too close to the factory to be safe for their family of four. The property is now vacant, and the baby’s ball is still lying on the grass near a swing set, now moving only by the breeze.

A few miles from AltEn, Stan Keizer and his wife only drink bottled water after finding AltEn contaminants in their well, and both are saddened and angered by the influx of toxic wastewater that they say wiped out all of the four signs of life. Acre farm pond. Testing of pond water, sediment and private wells showed evidence of pesticide contamination.

Their daughter Amy Whitehead can’t forget the sight of dead beavers and a little dead fox she found near the water after a pipe burst at AltEn sent smelly sewage onto the Keizer property. The fish died long before then, about a year after AltEn started using the pesticide-coated seeds. The farm has been in her family since 1911, and she hopes that one day her children will be able to live and play on the land without risk. But she worries that may not be possible any time soon.

“I’m worried about the water,” Whitehead said. “It is not clean. He appears to be dead.”

Polluted water flows at Kaiser Farm in Mead, Nebraska.
Polluted water flows at Kaiser Farm in Mead, Nebraska. Photography: Amy Whitehead

Keizer used to enjoy fishing with his wife and running his grandchildren around the pond in a paddle boat, but now the couple have broken the pier and kept their distance from the water.

at A letter has been sent to the state organizers In February, Keisers said concerns about the condition of their drinking water remained. They want to routinely test well water, and put in place a filtration system for their water needs in their homes and livestock. They also want to remove and treat pond water, remove sediment, and install a new liner.

“We just want to make these people responsible,” Stan Keizer said of AltEn. “They knew what they were doing.”

Monitor health effects

Even as experts race to detoxify AltEn sewage storage lakes, researchers say the polluted water has already moved away from the Mead, and possibly even into the aquifer that supplies water to cities and towns across the region. They fear that there will be more leakage into the environment under the piles of wet, unlined cakes. Airborne transmission is also one of the possible causes as is some waste was burned by AltEn operators before shutdown.

Researchers from the University of Nebraska School of Medicine have started a study to try to assess whether there are any long-term health effects from pollution. They will soon start collecting blood and urine from people in the area who are looking for pesticide contamination, and have set up Online human health survey To gather more information. Researchers from the University of Nebraska and Creighton University are also testing animals and sampling water, soil and air. To truly understand the impacts on human health and the environment will take several years and up to 8 million dollarsThey say.

Map showing the potential dispersal of toxic agricultural residues from Mead, Nebraska.
Map showing the potential dispersal of toxic agricultural residues from Mead, Nebraska. Photography: John Shalis

“We believe that some of the human health consequences of this will not emerge in a few days, and will probably appear within a few years,” said Eleanor Rogan, interim chief of health promotion, College London. Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Rogan and other researchers said they faced many barriers, including opposition from the agricultural industry and several state legislators.

The research, which highlights the risks that come with chemically treated seeds, is considered “anti-business,” according to University of Nebraska research scientist Jodi Wu Smart.

The legislature rejected a $10 million funding proposal for university research on the effects of AltEn, and instead approved $1 million. If no more money is found, the business will have to be scaled back, according to Rogan.

Carol Blood, a Democrat in the Nebraska state legislature, is one of the lawmakers supporting the research and wants an investigation into the regulatory dealings with AltEn.

Blood is now flowing on the governor, promising to put an end to the “secretism” surrounding the AltEn cases. “We want to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” said Blood. “We don’t know if someone in elementary school now might not be able to have children when they get older because of this. People might get cancer, people might get sick. We don’t want people to think Mead is a bad place to live and raise a family. But it’s about By having clean air to breathe and purified water to drink.”

  • This story was posted with new ladyIt is a press project of the Environmental Working Group