Nebraska is a prime example of how theory and reality are often at odds with one another. On one hand, the state is encouraging a surge in renewable energy while on the other, it is allowing some of its citizens to be poisoned by the effluent from an ethanol factory. First the good news.
2 Terawatt-Hours Of Renewable Energy
Monolith Materials has a chemical plant located in Hallam, Nebraska, which is located about 30 miles south of the capitol city of Lincoln. There, the company produces carbon black which is used in the manufacture of tires and other rubber products as well as in paint. Each year, the Hallam facility produces about 14,000 tons of the stuff from natural gas feedstocks.
One of the byproducts of carbon black production is hydrogen. Originally, the plan was to use that hydrogen to generate clean energy at Nebraska Public Power District’s Hallam Station power plant. But upon further review, it was determined that using it to make anhydrous ammonia — a fertilizer used in agriculture — would be more profitable. “We’re a startup,” Rob Hanson, CEO of Monolith, tells the Omaha World-Herald. “We go where the economy takes us.” Making ammonia from hydrogen does not create any carbon emissions while conventional ammonia manufacturing methods do.
Farming is big in Nebraska and it uses a lot of fertilizer. Hanson says the output from the Hallam plant could supply half the state’s anhydrous ammonia needs but manufacturing it will require lots of electricity — about 2 TWh a year. To meet that need, NPPD plans to issue a request for proposals in March seeking a combination of wind and solar power coupled with battery storage. Monolith plans to invest $1 billion to expand its chemical plant and NPPD expects the cost of building the renewable energy infrastructure necessary to supply all that electricity will be around $1.2 billion.
According to Renewables Now, the signing of power purchase agreements is expected to occur by September 1, 2021, with commercial operations scheduled to start by the end of 2025. “The approximately two million megawatt-hours of generation would create a sufficient number of renewable energy credits (RECs) to meet 100 percent of Monolith’s average annual energy usage and meet their environmental and sustainability goals,” says NPPD’s president and CEO, Tom Kent. He says the plan will double NPPD’s current renewable energy production and provide enough power to supply the needs of Lincoln. “It’s a big step forward for us.”
Jobs are an important part of the equation. The Hallam facility employs about 100 people in carbon black production. It expects that number will grow to 700 workers when the ammonia piece is added. That part of the plant is expected to be completed and ready to start production in 2025.
Every story has a dark underbelly, however. In the United States, natural gas means fracking, so while the ammonia making process may be emissions free, the supply of natural gas is anything but. In addition, some local residents worry the Monolith plant will consume too much water, leaving too little left over for other needs. The plant will need 1,000 acre-feet of water per year.
Rob Hanson isn’t worried. He says the local aquifer can easily supply that much water without placing undo demands on the aquifer. “We’re not perfect, but we generally live up to our commitments,” he says. Presumably he believes those are comforting words.
Poisoning For Profit
An entirely different story is unfolding in the town of Mead, Nebraska, 40 miles northeast of Lincoln. There, in a small community of about 500 inhabitants, AltEn operates a chemical plant that turns corn into ethanol. That’s not unusual. Ethanol is blended with gasoline in plants all across America, a practice that began after the OPEC oil embargoes in the 70s but soon became embedded in federal law as a gift to farmers from the government. Corn is a major force in US politics and the corn into ethanol scheme continues in full force long after constraints on oil imports ended.
What is different about the facility in Mead is that it takes in seeds that have been pre-treated with fungicides and pesticides including those known as neonicotinoids. AltEn in effect pays nothing for its raw materials, which are generally surplus that seed companies are happy to give away.
According to The Guardian, the chemicals applied to the seeds are part of a group knows as neonicotinoids which include clothianidin, thiamethoxam, and imidacloprid. The European Union banned the outdoor use of clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam in 2018 and the United Nations says they are so hazardous they should be “severely” restricted. But in the US, they are used widely in seeds sold by Bayer and Syngenta. The waste left behind by the ethanol conversion process includes extremely high levels of all three. The chart below shows exactly how high.
Those levels were recorded from samples of the 175 million gallons of waste water stored on AltEn property after testing by Nebraska authorities. Testing of the semi-solid waste piled up on the property showed results that were two to three times higher.
Wildlife and pets near the AltEn facility have been observed staggering and appearing disoriented. Bees and butterflies nearby have died completely. “Some of the levels recorded are just off the charts,” says Dan Raichel, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council which has been working with academics and other environmental protection groups to monitor the situation in Mead. “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.”
Last February, Channel 6 News in Omaha reported the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy had issued an order requiring the company to dispose of the semi-solid waste from the ethanol processing. When asked when that would happen, plant manager Scott Tingelhoff said, “A time frame? I don’t know if it’s going to be weeks or months but it won’t be years.” He added that the company will continue to work with regulatory agencies and looks forward to resolving any issues regarding the pile of waste.
In October, state officials again notified the company it has concerns about AltEn not properly disposing of the waste and noted the possibility of contamination of “short-term and longer-term surface water and groundwater. 11 months later, the piles of semi-solid waste and lagoons of contaminated water are still present on the company’s property.
Calls For Action Get No Response
“I’ve gotten a lot of pushback from people at the state,” Mead resident Paula Dyas tells The Guardian. She filed a complaint with the state when her dogs became ill after drinking waste water from the plant that had been dumped on a farmer’s field nearby. Her pets have recovered but were so ill she feared lasting damage. “There is just no regard for how much of these chemicals we’re putting on to the land and what that is ultimately going to do to animals, to wildlife,” she says.
Jody Weible, former chairwoman of the Mead planning commission, tried to enlist the aid of state political leaders as well as regulators in dealing with what she refers to as the “poison” coming from AltEn. “I’ve emailed the EPA, water, parks and conservation people, pretty much anybody I could think of,” Weible says. “They all say there is nothing they think they can do about it.” Other neighbors living near the plant have told state officials of strange illnesses and dead or dying birds.
State regulators say they have not tested water or soil or vegetation outside the plant property and have no knowledge of potential wider harm from the spread of the AltEn waste. But Judy Wu-Smart, a University of Nebraska researcher studying bee health, has done some testing and says there is little doubt that contamination from the plant has spread much farther than its boundaries.
In an academic paper she has shared with regulators and other researchers, she said every single beehive maintained on a university research farm located about a mile from Mead has died off since AltEn began operating. She has also reported a scarcity of other insects common to the area and has video recordings of birds and butterflies in the area that appear neurologically impaired. Her studies have also found traces of neonicotinoids in vegetation and waterways that connect the university land to AltEn.
Wu-Smart says she is concerned that a broad contamination event is taking a toll on the environment and possibly the people living in the area. “There is a red flag here. The bees are just a bio-indicator of something seriously going wrong,” Wu-Smart says. There is an “urgent need to examine potential impacts on local communities and wildlife.”
Scott Tingelhoff said, “If anybody has concerns, I think the good neighbor way to handle it is to communicate with them and to talk about it.” Showing how much he values such communication, Tinglehoff failed to respond to a multiple requests for comment from The Guardian.
The Nebraska department of environment and energy told The Guardian it “does not have an opinion” about the source of the bee die-offs and lacks “jurisdiction” in the matter. It added that it was continuing to “review operations and activities at the facility.” Other state officials also declined to speak with The Guardian directly but Blayne Glissman, an NDEE waste permits specialist, said in defense for the ethanol operation that he believed AltEn officials were just “hard-working people trying to make a living.”
The Take Away
The upshot of all this is the people of Mead are being poisoned by the waste products created at the AltEn ethanol plant and everyone at the state and federal level is looking the other way, pointing fingers, and claiming that protection from environmental harm is someone else’s responsibility. It’s hard to imagine how that doesn’t amount to eco-terrorism. Can you see yourself living there and worrying every day about what effects the effluent from the plant is having on your children and their mental development?
The situation is reminiscent of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan which everyone from the governor on down tried to sweep under the rug or the people near fracking operations whose water is so loaded with pollutants it actually is combustible. See the movie Gasland for more on that subject.
The flippant response from Blayne Glissman could easily be applied to corporate executives in the oil and gas industry who are just trying to eke out a living by drilling in national parks, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or in the ocean along both coasts. In essence, he is saying that as long as someone is making money, all these namby pamby environmentalists should just shut up and go away. Your tax dollars at work, people. Kinda makes you feel proud, doesn’t it?