Ethanol Plant Disaster Creates Environmental and Human Health Concerns for Rural Community in Mead, Nebraska
An ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska, was shut down in 2021 for violations related to toxic chemical waste mismanagement. In 2015, the ethanol plant switched from the traditional ethanol extraction method of using normal excess grain and seed, a practice which is generally regarded as environmentally friendly, and instead started using recycled seed corn that had been treated with insecticides and fungicides known as neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids, neurotoxins commonly known as “neonics,” have a chemical makeup similar to that of nicotine and bind to the receptors in insects' central nervous systems. Neonics were developed for pesticide use in the 1990s; therefore, scientific understandings of their potential effects on both human health and the environment, over time, are still widely unknown. Broadly, literature about these chemicals exists. However, guidance for addressing specific and personal health impacts on individuals is not supported by peer-reviewed studies.
During normal ethanol production, seed byproduct is turned into cattle feed; this is part of what makes it environmentally sound. However, the ethanol plant was using leftover neonic-treated seed corn, which they received at no cost as a disposal site for agricultural companies. At one point, the ethanol plant in Mead received a reported 98% of the excess neonic-treated seed in the country. The recycled seed byproduct from the plant's ethanol extraction process cannot be turned into livestock feed, as it is too toxic. The excess waste, consequently, piled up on the ethanol plant's campus without a viable disposal method.
In 2017, Dr. Judy Wu-Smart, a University of Nebraska entomologist, brought attention to the issue when she attempted to establish bee colonies at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center near Mead. Her bees were dying “almost instantaneously,” which led her to investigate why the colonies were not establishing. According to a story map published in 2021, the state performed testing in 2019 and found unsafe levels of neonic compounds on the plant's property. The toxins were present in excess of 1,000 times the legal limit. However, the company ignored orders to properly dispose of the waste, according to a lawsuit levied by the state of Nebraska. Despite previous safety violations, the plant was not shut down until a contaminant wastewater spill occurred in February 2021, when a 4-million-gallon tank burst and spilled ethanol distillation liquid waste, known as stillage, into the surrounding ditches and creeks, up to 4.5 miles out from the plant. This event, in combination with the 84,000 tons of neonic-contaminated dry residue and 176 million gallons of wastewater accumulated in lagoons on the property, pose significant environmental and public health concerns for the small rural town of Mead.
The University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) became involved in response to the ethanol plant disaster after being alerted to Wu-Smart's findings by a partner at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), following a large news outlet's publication of an article regarding the environmental and health concerns in Mead. Partners at UNMC College of Public Health; University of Nebraska-Lincoln, including the Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources; and Creighton University collaborated to devise plans on how to approach this disaster and evaluate the potential environmental and human health impacts that could arise from this situation. Dr. Eleanor Rogan, Founding Chair of the Department of Environmental, Agricultural, and Occupational Health at UNMC, is the Project Lead for the Mead investigation team. Dr. Jesse Bell, Director of the Water, Climate, and Health Program at UNMC and the University of Nebraska Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, is the Claire M. Hubbard Professor of Water, Climate, and Health and is one of the founding members of the investigation team that brought awareness to the problem in Mead.
The investigation team received funding from the Claire M. Hubbard Foundation in April 2021, to start assessing environmental and human health impacts in Mead resulting from the spill. Additionally, in March 2022, a hearing regarding funding for UNMC's response to the ethanol plant disaster was held in the Nebraska Legislature. Three members from the Mead community testified, alongside 3 team members from UNMC, in support of the ongoing project. As a result of an amendment, the Nebraska Legislature appropriated $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to the investigation team for the continuation of the study in Mead.
Community Impact in Mead
Mead is a small rural town of around 600 residents in Saunders County, Nebraska. Due to the proximity of the ethanol plant to the community of Mead, residents in the town are disproportionately affected by the neonic-laden seed byproduct pollution produced from the facilities. At the plant, “block-long piles” of dyed-mint-green solid seed waste litter the premises. In warmer weather, residents suffer an intolerable smell that wafts from the piled-up waste on the plant's campus into residential and commercial areas of town. Whether outside, or inside a building without air conditioning, the noxious smell permeates the community. Residents also report health effects, such as nosebleeds and eye and throat irritation.
A number of people from the Mead community, particularly those with small children, have sold their homes or properties out of concern for their health to avoid continued exposure to chemicals from the plant. While the specific physical, environmental, and health impacts on Mead are yet to be determined, UNMC has engaged with multiple members of the community expressing concern for their own health outcomes, as well as the health status of the community as a whole. It is still unclear what the total impact of this prolonged exposure to neonic insecticides and fungicides will be for residents of Mead. Community members have been highly receptive and supportive of the investigation team's efforts because they want answers.
The investigation team noted the gravity of this environmental disaster, as none of the responding members have ever worked on a project as big or acute as this issue. However, multiple individuals on the investigation team have previously collaborated on water quality studies examining nitrate agrichemicals and pesticides for their potential impacts on human health in eastern Nebraska. The investigation team's familiarity with environmental and human health impacts as well as experience working with pollutant and disease tracking have been valuable tools in responding to the ethanol plant disaster. Additionally, the investigation team has benefited from the expertise of Dr. Ali Khan, Dean of the College of Public Health at UNMC and Project Advisor, who shared his knowledge of disaster response from his experiences as the former Director of the CDC Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, which is now known as the Center for Preparedness and Response.
Prior to the event, the investigation team did not have any definitive partnerships for collaboration in place. However, a working relationship with the Three Rivers Public Health Department in Saunders County enabled the investigation team to better reach the Mead community to share information and recruit study participants. Further, relationships with the Natural Resource Districts (NRD) of Nebraska and the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) have allowed for resources and data sharing to facilitate progress in addressing the environmental disaster.
The investigation team's response efforts focused on two elements of the disaster outcomes — environmental health and human health.
A collaborator at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a hydrological engineer, has been taking monthly water samples at specified locations southeast of the ethanol plant, following the directional flow of a creek that empties into a contaminated reservoir. In the timeframe between the winter snow melting and the spring planting season, the investigation team collected surface water, groundwater, soil, and vegetation samples to test for the presence of neonic toxins. The investigation team plans to also test small animals, including mammals, frogs, and birds, in addition to pollinator insects, such as bees and butterflies, to observe the potential effects that neonics may have on these populations. Further, the investigation team has collected air samples to assess how toxins in the waste piles on the plant property traveled via wind.
In March and April of 2022, NDEE collaborated with EA Engineering, Science, and Technology to monitor and collect groundwater samples at 6 different sampling locations on the plant property. One of the sites, which displayed significantly high levels of different neonic contaminant particulates, is located under a leaking wastewater lagoon. The leakage has resulted in the lagoon's waterline dropping 6 feet lower than it was originally, causing heightened concern for groundwater quality in the aquifer below. NDEE collaborated with UNMC to share this information, which has allowed the investigation team to access additional resources, as well as identify specific areas of concern during the response process.
In conducting community health assessments for the town of Mead, the investigation team followed a Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER)-inspired survey model, which serves as an epidemiologic tool for after-action reporting in disasters. Basing the assessment on CASPER methodology allowed the investigation team to collect household-based information about the Mead community. The investigation team surveyed residents in Mead to report their perceived health effects, such as respiratory problems, rashes, and other types of illnesses that could be associated with exposure to these toxins. In the summer of 2021, when the first surveys were distributed to the community, the response rate was relatively low, due to the sparsely populated geography of Mead. In response to that realization, the investigation team reevaluated the method they were using to implement the survey and reformatted the survey to attract a better response rate from the community. They used remote methods, such as email, Facebook, and other avenues, to better connect with the people of Mead while mitigating potential bias that could arise through in-person surveying. The survey was then sent to a thousand households within a 6-mile radius of the ethanol plant. As of spring 2022, the investigation team has received around a 30% response rate from the Mead community.
Additionally, the investigation team partnered with Saunders Medical Center, a Critical Access Hospital (CAH) in Wahoo, and the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory, located on the UNMC campus. These partners are collaborating to collect samples of blood and urine from Mead community members to determine whether they have detectable amounts of neonic-related toxins in their bloodstream or urinalysis results. This data will be collected for broader analysis, and it will also be reported back to individuals for their own awareness. The investigation team is setting up a medical registry to track the individual health effects emerging over time in Mead and is currently searching for funding to maintain the registry for at least the next 10 years.
The investigation team created a website at the beginning of their response efforts that shares general information, a link to the health tracking survey, and photographs from their collection endeavors. The team made the conscious decision to avoid posting raw data that they were collecting to the dashboard, in order to avoid misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or manipulation.
The next step in the recovery process, beyond containing the pollutants and their effects on the town of Mead, is figuring out how to destroy the toxins. Decisions have been made to divert the toxic waste at the ethanol plant from ending up in a landfill to mitigate further environmental contamination and spread. However, the process of treating the waste to get rid of the neonic compounds is an important step that the College of Public Health at UNMC does not have the capacity or jurisdiction to undertake.
As a result of their analyses in the spring, summer, and fall of 2021, the investigation team found degradation products of the neonic pesticide chemicals in the water. While some of these degradation products are less toxic than the original compounds, others are at least as toxic, if not more. This demonstrates the importance of not only measuring the parent compounds for toxic material analyses, but also looking at the whole picture of the breakdown process. If the original toxic compounds are degrading, at face value it will appear that they are disappearing from the environment. Upon further investigation, however, it may be found that the byproducts are instead building up in their place.
The investigation team hopes that their efforts in Mead provide a framework for future use. Once they have collected an ample amount of data, they hope to be able to evaluate more definitively which environmental responses are useful as a model for investigating disasters efficiently.
The investigation team's expertise on conducting environmental analyses, developing surveys for community health assessments, constructing a medical registry for symptoms tracking, and collecting biological samples for testing contribute to the “success story” that has allowed the investigation team to get these essential activities completed, despite various delays. “We know how to do this kind of work,” said Rogan, in reference to the team's success.
The investigation team has engaged partners through its members' professional networks that have contributed to the success of this project. Partners at the CDC provided important guidance for developing the CASPER surveys and shared feedback regarding community assessment initiatives. Additionally, the local health department provided expertise and guidance within Mead, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Nebraska Water Science Laboratory assisted with sample processing, and NDEE communicated with the investigation team to assist in response capacity. Given the status of the COVID-19 pandemic, collaboration has been essential to avoid further stretching the resources of already exhausted health departments and to alleviate some of the burden.
Since this environmental event is so large and long-standing, the investigation team wanted to make sure they were communicating effectively with the community so that they understand what is happening in terms of response. Additionally, maintaining appropriate contact with state and local agencies to ensure operational order and cohesive partnerships was paramount. Coordination across multiple institutions, therefore, required significant attention.
Both the community of Mead and the investigation team are passionate about this project. Everyone involved wants to help environmental and human health in Mead recover, and this has garnered a responsive volunteer base that is willing to dedicate time and resources to address the issue in various capacities.
The news media in Nebraska and beyond have helped bring awareness to the problem in Mead by keeping the story alive. Though UNMC has not formally partnered with any news station, the journalistic focus on the event has led to greater awareness of the issue and even generated leads for community contacts. After airing a piece on the ethanol plant, a local news station received multiple inquiries from concerned citizens wishing to participate in the UNMC study. The reporters shared these volunteer contacts with the investigation team, who were then able to incorporate their experiences into the study and connect them with further resources.
One challenge to the investigation team has been the timeline of the project. Frustrating to both responders and the individuals involved in the disaster, the operation of collecting, processing, and disseminating data gathered in Mead to the general public has been slow-going. Instead of the expected 2-3-month turnaround, efforts are still being made to assure due process, representative sampling, and Institutional Review Board (IRB) compliance. The weather in Mead has posed additional challenges. The winter months bring low temperatures that freeze the ground and cover it in snow, making soil, water, and groundwater sampling ineffective. Due to this unavoidable issue, the testing process has been necessarily confined to the spring and summer months.
The necessity of “trying to stay focused” on activities with top priority has been challenging and has compounded the issue of needing to find additional funding for continued response and recovery activities. Response activities must remain strategic when there are only limited resources of both time and money available. Ensuring that a few strategic initiatives are completed and well-done will have more impact for a community than multiple, lackluster initiatives. Saying “no” is particularly difficult in situations such as this, where tensions are high and communities are vulnerable. However, being able to clearly articulate limitations will ultimately benefit programmatic outcomes.
The long-term impacts of neonics on environmental and human health are largely unknown, including the potential effects of exposure on infants and children. One of the biggest challenges in responding to the disaster in Mead has been communicating this lack of information to the community. A similar event with these specific types of chemicals has not occurred — this only compounds the severity of the lack of peer-reviewed studies on the topic. Residents are concerned for themselves and their families, so balancing the duty of relaying factual, evidence-supported information with an added layer of compassion can be difficult. It is important to provide communities with enough information so that they can feel comfortable and informed. It is also a responsible practice to avoid worrying individuals beyond what is necessary, due to the lack of definitive information available.
Another difficulty for the investigation team in addressing the environmental disaster in Mead has been maintaining a neutral position and avoiding an advocacy role. The team is not interested in highlighting negative outcomes for the sake of furthering an environmental advocacy goal. Rather, they are focused on gathering facts as accurately as possible and without bias. The investigation team has a responsibility to the community of Mead to approach the disaster in a scientific yet compassionate way. Regardless of their findings and conclusion, the investigation team is adamant in their goal of providing the residents of Mead with answers. Passion is inevitable with events such as this, and in order to maintain their neutral, objective viewpoint on the situation, the investigation team has declined opportunities, such as invitations to speak at advocacy events. Instead, they have hosted their own virtual townhall meetings, to avoid aligning themselves with any one cause.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented multiple challenges to health monitoring and community engagement. Due to social distancing requirements at the time, the investigation team was unable to complete community assessment activities in a traditional manner, including community engagement events such as town halls and focus groups. Bell explained that if the investigation team had been able to convene community members in-person to hear their concerns and worries, then they could have identified community needs and perspectives in a more personal way than is possible with online meeting platforms. Maintaining communication in a productive way, addressing concerns, and sharing information with the community without a memorable, physical presence in Mead created challenges for the investigation team. Additionally, local health departments and organizations have been preoccupied with the pandemic; to avoid overwhelming community health providers, collaboration was essential for the human health aspect of the response.
Rural communities like Mead are highly susceptible to events such this one at the ethanol plant. Since rural communities lack relative resources in comparison to larger urban areas, the risks associated with such disasters are significant. If the ethanol plant disaster were to occur in a major metropolitan area, supposed Bell, they may have more resources to mitigate negative outcomes. For example, a large metropolitan area would likely have its own health department, its own version of an office for environmental quality, and a generally larger population that can “make noise” about the event. These disparities negatively affect rural communities with smaller populations. Additionally, in factory- and plant-based events such as this, rural communities often face the added stressor that the organization responsible for the disaster could be a major employer for the area.
UNMC did not officially enlist the aid of the media; rather, they have been cooperating with them to increase publicity for this issue. Bringing awareness to the event via publications and news stories can incentivize communities, funders, advocates, and others involved in state government agencies to meaningfully participate in addressing the problem. This level of exposure is especially salient for small, rural communities like Mead.
Time and Funding
Response to the ethanol plant spill has been a time-consuming endeavor of data processing. The availability of funding early, as well as the continued assurance of funding going forward, is a necessary step in shaping disaster response to be carried out in the most efficient way. For example, appropriated ARPA funds from the Nebraska Legislature improved the investigation team's response capacity immensely. At the beginning of the project, however, many of the investigation team's funding applications were turned down. The continuous process of searching and applying for funding opportunities ensures the maintenance of response capabilities. Making sure that there was enough money available within the project to carry out chemical analyses was listed among the highest of program priorities for the response.
Looking to the Future
Environmental disasters occur regularly and, for various reasons, they get different levels of attention. While no single environmental event in Nebraska has been as acute as the disaster at the plant in Mead, past industrial and environmental disasters in the state have contributed to the knowledge of responders. UNMC's response can serve as an example and teaching tool to help individuals understand that while this neonic contamination is an isolated event, other environmental challenges surrounding water and air quality exist across the state of Nebraska. Universities should serve as resources to communities like Mead, as they are able to mobilize in various ways with a variety of expertise to draw upon. The event at the ethanol plant created an opportunity to develop a framework through which university systems are able to engage in environmental and human health events in rural areas. General experience has continued to grow from the disaster and has allowed the investigation team to develop a sustainable framework for disaster response that could be mobilized in a future event.
For rural communities or organizations responding to environmental disasters like the one at the ethanol plant in Mead, Rogan and Bell suggested:
Awareness for the IssueAttract media attention to the issue as soon as the problem arises. The “squeaky wheel” must push for something to be done until those with influence are responsive. Find people who are willing to think about the issue and “carry the ball” themselves.
The Right PeopleEspecially in response groups comprising professionals from multiple different organizations and backgrounds, it can be difficult to balance the needs of a disaster response in addition to other ongoing professional responsibilities. To mitigate this, it can be helpful to hire at least one motivated and independent staff member to specifically focus on the issue at hand. This ensures that someone is constantly keeping things moving forward, so that there is little lull in the response process.
DocumentationKeep detailed notes and good documentation of everything. Not only does this practice ensure continuity and clarity over time, in an event as high-profile as the ethanol plant disaster, there may be the possibility of future legal action. Maintaining records increases transparency and prepares for the possibility of legal ramifications.
Eleanor Rogan, PhD, Professor and Project Lead for the Mead investigation team
College of Public Health, University of Nebraska Medical Center
Jesse Bell, PhD, Director of the Claire M. Hubbard Professor of Water, Climate, and Health Program
College of Public Health, University of Nebraska Medical Center
Opinions expressed are those of the interviewee(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural Health Information Hub.