Sarah Hoyle, pesticide specialist, Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
(914) 419-0104 | [email protected]
MEAD, Neb.; February 8, 2021---In a major victory for local residents and wildlife, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) issued an emergency order to stop wastewater discharge by an ethanol plant that is processing pesticide-treated seed.
For over two years, residents of Mead have reported mysterious odors and strange illnesses in people and pets. Bees and other wildlife have also suffered. This has been linked to high levels of pesticide contamination from the plant processing pesticide-laden seed to make ethanol. Testing has shown that wastewater in the plant’s lagoons is contaminated with clothianidin, a highly toxic pesticide, at levels up to 5,000 times above the EPA’s acute freshwater invertebrate benchmark.
This emergency order comes after community complaints, scientific analysis from researchers and recent efforts by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and other conservation groups to draw attention to the situation. This action shutters the plant until it develops a state-approved plan for handling its highly contaminated wastewater.
“This order is a victory for the community of Mead and the bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife that live near this plant,” said Sarah Hoyle, a pesticide specialist at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “Xerces applauds NDEE for taking decisive action.”
The state has been investigating the situation in Mead since local residents’ complaints brought to light the fact that the plant was processing pesticide-treated seed rather than simply “corn,” as indicated in permit applications.
After confirming extensive pesticide contamination, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture issued a stop-use order in spring 2019 for the plant’s contaminated solid byproduct, which was being spread on local fields. In fall 2019, NDEE also issued an order to stop releasing wastewater from the plant’s storage lagoons. In defiance of this, contaminated wastewater has continued to be applied to local fields and discharged into waterways. Furthermore, the lagoons are in disrepair and the plant is operating above its state-approved capacity.
In response to these failings, and because Xerces, residents and others helped get local, national and international media attention on this issue, the state has ordered the facility to stop discharging wastewater into their lagoons and submit a plan to dispose of the heavily contaminated wastewater within 30 days.
While NDEE’s order addresses wastewater violations at the plant, it falls short of addressing other sources of contamination. State testing has identified pesticides in solid waste stockpiles, groundwater below the facility and in air emissions, and it is not clear which routes of pesticide exposure are causing illnesses in the local community.
In addition, Nebraska state legislators have responded and are proposing bills to prohibit the use of treated seed in ethanol production (LB 507) and to shift responsibility to seed companies for appropriate disposal (LB 634).
Other states are also looking to act. Legislation introduced in Minnesota would require the creation of product stewardship programs to collect and dispose of excess seed treated with neonicotinoid insecticides, as well as prohibiting its use in ethanol plants (HF 766).
One major problem is that the US Environmental Protection Agency exempts pesticide-treated seed from general pesticide oversight by designating them as “treated articles.” For years, the Xerces Society and other conservation organizations have fought to close this loophole, citing concerns of risk associated with the use of treated seed. The contamination in Mead shows that the issues with treated seed also extend to disposal, as companies are left with millions of pounds of highly toxic seed that go unused each year.
“Federal regulators need to step in, close EPA’s 'treated articles' loophole and acknowledge that seeds treated with toxic pesticides are in fact pesticides,” said Hoyle. “Without oversight of pesticide-treated seed, other communities could suffer the same consequences as Mead.”
For more on the background to this situation, read our blog Ethanol Plant Causes Severe Pesticide Contamination in Nebraska
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation protects the natural world by conserving invertebrates and their habitat. Established in 1971, the Society is a trusted source for science-based information and advice and plays a leading role in protecting pollinators and many other invertebrates. Our team draws together experts from the fields of habitat restoration, entomology, plant ecology, education, pesticides, farming and conservation biology with a single passion: Protecting the life that sustains us. To learn more, visit xerces.org or follow us @xercessociety on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.