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A Nebraska Plant Used A Toxic Ethanol Source. A Town Is Now Living With Contamination

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In one small Nebraska town, residents are living alongside unprecedented pesticide contamination, all stemming from a local ethanol plant. The plant once made headlines for its unorthodox way of making the additive, but now researchers are investigating possible side effects, including bee die-offs, sick pets and health concerns. Christina Stella of Nebraska Public Media reports.

CHRISTINA STELLA, BYLINE: Most of the gas we pump into our cars is now blended with ethanol, an alcohol usually made from corn. But the 600-person village of Mead, Neb., is home to a plant like no other. The AltEn ethanol company instead used surplus crop seeds. But many were also coated with pesticides that contaminated the company's main byproduct, a corn sludge called wet cake. Resident Charlie McAvoy says their problems started with a stench.

CHARLIE MCAVOY: We think it smells like a combination of dead rats and rotting grain.

STELLA: Years later, Emily Loftus lives by 84,000 tons of rotting, toxic byproduct and enough wastewater to fill more than 260 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

EMILY LOFTUS: You know, we bought this house. We thought it was going to be a great house for kids. And now the question is, did we harm them in this process? Is it safe when they're out bouncing on the trampoline? We don't know.

STELLA: Nebraska closed the plant in February after years of environmental violations. Days later, the company accidentally spilled 4 million more gallons. Eleanor Rogan at the University of Nebraska Medical Center says that's created a rare, extreme case of pesticide pollution.

ELEANOR ROGAN: If you're just trying to imagine 84,000 tons of something - I mean, we're talking about rows and rows of three-story-tall hills of contaminated stuff.

STELLA: Rogan is overseeing a team of public health and environmental researchers investigating poisoned pets, bee die-offs and unexplained health issues. State sampling found around a dozen pesticides in AltEn's waste, some at hundreds to a thousand times higher than safety limits.

ROGAN: We are concerned, although we have no evidence yet about the possibility of neurotoxicity for both children and adults.

STELLA: Air, soil and water sampling will track the chemicals. Surveys, blood tests and a medical registry will evaluate potential risk of illness.

ROGAN: This is an unusual opportunity to actually conduct an experiment in people that you would never want to conduct, which is exposing people over time to high concentrations of these chemicals.

STELLA: So far, it appears that the town's drinking water is OK. But some worry about communities downstream. In June, six former AltEn suppliers, including industry giants Bayer, Syngenta, and Corteva, vowed to remediate the plant's toxic waste. But that's a challenge. Jennifer Weisbrod runs the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Pesticide Safety Education Program. She says while using expired seed to make ethanol is legal, EPA guidance is less clear on how to safely dispose of the waste containing pesticides.

JENNIFER WEISBROD: Because there are not risk assessments for multiple combinations of chemicals, there wasn't really an assessment out there that identified this as a potential problem.

STELLA: Nebraska's regulators wouldn't comment for this story, but a representative for the private cleanup group said the process calls for careful planning. So far, they've treated 12 million gallons of wastewater, but it's still evaluating how to safely dispose of the plant's toxic wet cake. Residents hope that question will lead to more guidance around safely discarding pesticide-treated seed. They're some of the most common products used by farmers today.

For NPR News, I'm Christina Stella.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.