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'I am terrified' — AltEn study finds pesticides in Mead woman's home

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Mead, Neb.

Jody Weible, a former member of Mead’s Village Planning Board, said when AltEn was given a conditional use permit to run its plant, the board wasn't told the plant would use seed corn, rather than the more common field corn, to produce ethanol.

MEAD — High on the wall in Jody Weible’s dining room is a small shrine to Dale Earnhardt.

The miniature race cars, mugs and “anything else” dealing with No. 3 has had a place of honor in the ranch-style house for nearly a decade, Weible said, adorning the home alongside family photos, rodeo-themed decor and Bible verses.

Over the years, it’s also gathered dust blown in from the countryside, often outpacing Weible’s desire to remove each of the tchotchkes to clean them.

So last year, when a researcher from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln knocked on her door a little more than a mile north of AltEn asking to sample for pesticides in and around her home, Weible pointed him to the Intimidator.

“He just put an adhesive pad on the glass shelf and lifted it off,” Weible said. “There was a perfectly clean spot where it had been.”

Weible said she nearly forgot about the air and surface sampling. The Environmental Protection Agency conducted air sampling for several compounds -- not pesticides, however -- in September 2021, which eased the concerns of many residents, she said.

“In a million years, I thought I’d be totally fine," Weible said.

Jody Weible

Jody Weible lives less than a mile north of AltEn and has worked stubbornly for years to organize the community to push state lawmakers and government officials to address the environmental and health issues originating at the plant.

On Thursday, as researchers from UNL and the University of Nebraska Medical Center shared the preliminary results of a 2021 campaign sampling for neonicotinoid pesticides in and around Mead, Weible and others learned pesticides had been discovered in a home.

After a restless night, Weible said she learned her home was the hot spot.

The sample taken from her dining room showed the presence of 11 of the 14 compounds found in high concentrations at AltEn, which processed seeds coated with pesticides into ethanol, leaving behind toxic solid and liquid waste.

Specifically, the sample measured imidacloprid, which is applied to soybeans to protect them from early season pests, according to its seed label registered with the EPA, at 407 parts-per billion.

Clothianidin, another neonicotinoid — a class of pesticides derived from nicotine that overstimulate insects, leading to their death — was also found at 12.3 ppb, according to the university’s findings, as well as a cocktail of other chemicals used in various agricultural applications.

The results were shared anonymously on Thursday. Dr. Eleanor Rogan, who leads UNMC’s environmental health program and is overseeing research into how toxic compounds from AltEn have spread through the environment, said even she didn’t know whose house had been tested.

The researcher who conducted the sampling, Chandran Achutan, left UNMC not long after the research project took off last year when he got a new job.

In addition to being at levels 10 to 100 times lower than the level deemed lethal by the EPA, Rogan said more study was needed to link the pesticides definitely back to AltEn.

“These chemicals are used on all the farms, so we can’t say for sure they came from AltEn,” Rogan said. “We need to find out if they are present everywhere because you’re in a rural community, or if it’s possible they came from AltEn.”

A day after the results were shared, Weible says she’s certain that the various pesticides found inside and outside her home came from the ethanol plant.

“I’ve been frustrated through this whole deal,” she said, “but I’ve never been scared until now, and now I want to cry because I am terrified.”

Early findings shared

The results shared with about 50 people on Thursday confirmed what many in the Saunders County village have feared for years: That neonicotinoids and fungicides found in high concentrations at AltEn are also ubiquitous in the landscape for miles around the plant.

University researchers said they had located concentrated amounts of pesticides in surface and groundwater, in soil and bee colonies, and anticipated finding products in frogs and bird eggs collected across the area last year.

Judy Wu-Smart, an entomologist who brought attention to AltEn after the bee colonies she managed at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center south of Mead experienced persistent and total die-offs, said the 2021 samples showed some improvement.

While every hive deployed within a few miles of AltEn died in 2019 and 2020, Wu-Smart said the colonies in 2021 fared marginally better, with more than one-fourth surviving until the end of the season, and with fewer bees being found in the traps used to collect the dead.

“I think it has a lot to do with the capping of the pile and making sure none of (pesticides in the wet cake stored at AltEn) is blowing off,” Wu-Smart said, “Or shutting down the plant and making sure nothing is moving in or out of the facility.”

Still, the hives that survived did not thrive, she added. Careful observations showed abnormal behaviors within the colony linked to pesticide exposure, like the colony setting out to forage for pollen and nectar on the landscape sooner than normal.

Wu-Smart also said samples collected from soil that sat underneath where wet cake was delivered to a field two years ago showed high levels of neonicotinoids more than a foot below the surface, demonstrating the chemical’s vertical movement.

An analysis of ground and surface water downstream from AltEn turned up the same list of pesticides, as well as “degradation compounds,” or neonicotinoids that have gone through a transformation in the environment.

Jesse Bell, the director of UNMC’s Water, Climate and Health Program, said the research team has included seven degradation chemicals to the list of 14 “parent compounds” it has typically searched for, and believes more could emerge as the study continues.

“One of the reasons they like to use these pesticides is because they are persistent,” Bell said. “They do break down, but just because they degrade and break down does not mean their toxicity goes away. Those other compounds they break down into can be toxic as well.”

Thirteen of the 21 compounds tested for turned up at Johnson Creek Reservoir, a 56-acre pond that serves as part of a flood control system from the Crystal Creek watershed directly east of AltEn.

The ethanol plant had a permit to discharge stormwater into Johnson Creek north of the reservoir, according to records from the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy.

Study could have wide impact

Weible is among the overwhelming majority of residents in the village who told UNMC they are worried about what living in the vicinity of AltEn will mean for their future and their health.

Early results of a survey of perceived health risks show 75% of respondents indicated they are concerned about AltEn’s activities, as well as the ongoing cleanup efforts.

The research team, which came together last year and is now powered by a $1 million appropriation from the Legislature, is sensitive to the gravity of the work before them.

“It’s just terrible what (the people of Mead) are going through,” Bell said.

The scientists, public health professionals, doctors and veterinarians also recognize the opportunity created by the AltEn crisis, which has given them an unprecedented chance to investigate how agricultural chemicals travel through and are changed by the environment.

On Thursday, hours before the university’s presentation began, the EPA released its final biological evaluations for three of the neonicotinoid compounds found in high concentrations at AltEn and the surrounding environment.

The evaluation, which studied the effects of clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam on over 1,700 species and 800 habitats, sought to determine “whether they may affect one or more federally listed endangered or threatened (listed) species or their designated habitats.”

The results found clothianidin is likely to adversely affect 67% of endangered species and 56% of critical habitats; imidacloprid was likely to have an adverse effect on 79% of species and 83% of critical habitats; and thiamethoxam was likely to adversely affect 77% of species and 81% of habitats.

The EPA said it plans to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to develop a “biological opinion” on each chemical, which will then be used to develop mitigation measures to protect those species, likely to be released in 2024.

Khan said the steps being taken by the EPA will likely mean “a lot more scrutiny” and potentially more strict regulations on the class of insecticides plaguing the town and the surrounding area.

“The data you are generously providing as part of this assessment will then be available for EPA as they determine how to protect other communities across America who may find themselves, unfortunately, in this same position,” he told the town hall.

“We’re here to help you and you, in turn, are helping the rest of the U.S.,” Khan added.

Weible, whose tenacity helped bring attention to AltEn, said her concern has become more immediate. Since late 2019, the longtime resident of Mead said she has had sores on her tongue, which five doctors have been unable to explain.

Her neighbors have also developed health problems, as have others living miles away downwind from the plant.

“I’m frustrated and scared silly,” she said. “If it’s in my house, it’s in everybody’s house out here.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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