KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, I'm Kayte Young, and this is a special edition of Earth Eats. When the AltEn and ethanol plant opened in Mead Nebraska in 2015, it seemed like a win-win situation. Ethanol is usually made from field corn. AltEn had another idea, seed corn. It was plentiful, but treated with pesticides, contaminating AltEn's waste. Soon Mead stunk.
JOHN VYBRIAL: I can tell you that it's the worst smell in the world —
MEAD RESIDENT: — like sinus infection snot pouring out of your nose —
MEAD RESIDENT: It was just reeking
KAYTE YOUNG: Dogs got sick, bees started dying, and people worried for their health. This week we're devoting the hour to Christina Stella's, The Smell of Money, a documentary from Nebraska Public Media. Stay with us.
CHRISTINA CHRISTINA STELLA: In the very early hours of February 12th, 2021, Nebraska was in the throes
of a Polar vortex. It was cold. The kind that rings in your ears. And in the village of Mead — about
35 miles west of Omaha — there was another sound. Rushing water.
3 NEWS NOW ANCHOR: We start tonight with some breaking news out of Mead, Nebraska.
CHRISTINA STELLA: 3NewsNow reported —
3 NEWS NOW ANCHOR: There's a leak of wastewater from a container at the AltEn ethanol plant
in Saunders County, and according to the state, it's due to a frozen pipe.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Activist Mahmud Fitil with the Ní Btháska Stand advocate group rushed to the scene
and started live-streaming.
MAHMUD FITIL: All right relatives, we're down here. I believe this is ninth, county road nine and
J, outside of Mead, Nebraska. You can see there's a tarp down here —
CHRISTINA STELLA: The snow crunches under his feet. His flashlight pierces the darkness.
MAHMUD FITIL: You can see they’ve had a tank rupture —
CHRISTINA STELLA: The camera picks up dark liquid pooling near the AltEn ethanol plant. It’s a blend of
manure and nearly a dozen different industrial pesticides.
MAHMUD FITIL: It should be all frozen. It's really cold out here. It's actually melted a bunch of the snow and
CHRISTINA STELLA: The liquid had been stored in a 4-million gallon tank. That is, until it split open in the
middle of the night, just days after the state of Nebraska shut the plant down following years of
MAHMUD FITIL: And here we have an accident already. And this is just all the wastewater they were
ordered to get rid of, and it's now freely draining out into the drainage.
CHRISTINA STELLA: And it would spread as far as five miles away.
MAHMUD FITIL: Smells like fish guts on a hot summer’s day out here right now.
CHRISTINA STELLA: The people of Mead could smell it too. They’d been smelling it for years. And to them,
that night was the final straw—the moment when their fears about the AltEn ethanol plant were
unleashed in one of the worst ways imaginable.
My name is Christina Stella, and this is The Smell of Money, a documentary from Nebraska
We’ll start the morning after that spill in February. Members of a local Facebook group tell me
that if I want to understand what’s happening in Mead, there’s one person I have to talk to, Jody
[DIAL TONE, RINGING]
JODY WEIBLE: I had the volume off on my phone. I almost missed it!
CHRISTINA STELLA: Jody woke up that morning to a message from a neighbor. Wastewater from the plant
spilled overnight. And the liquid was everywhere.
JODY WEIBLE: And they didn't know who to report it to. So they reported it to me.
CHRISTINA STELLA: At this point, Jody practically had Nebraska’s Department of Environment and Energy
on speed dial. And once again, she worried chemicals from AltEn could leach into local
JODY WEIBLE: My well, it’s 40 to 45 feet deep.
CHRISTINA STELLA: It wasn’t the first time she’s had that thought. Jody’s worried about pollution from AltEn
since its opening year, 2015. It’s turned her into an unlikely environmental activist—Mead’s own
JODY WEIBLE: I simply love this town. It's full of wonderfully good people. I have never experienced a
family like that, such a close-knit community.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Jody’s lived in Mead since the mid-80s. And Mead, Nebraska, population roughly 600,
looks like a lot of small Midwestern towns. There’s a grain elevator by the country store, three
churches, some empty storefronts, and one restaurant, Cafe Euro Bistro. About a mile past Main
Street, I turn onto a quiet road and pull up to a ranch house. Jody greets me in leggings, fuzzy
slippers, and a shirt with a quote from the Bible on it in rainbow letters. She’s in her late 50s,
petite with bright blue eyes. We settle on her living room couch.
Okay — so I'm just gonna get a good audio level on you —
Jody says residents haven’t gotten many updates about the plant since it closed.
JODY WEIBLE: It just seems like everything slowed down to nothing. In fact, I have someone from HHS
coming down here to test my water any time now.
CHRISTINA STELLA: A few minutes later, a Department of Health and Human Services sedan pulls into the
JODY WEIBLE: We'll go out and see if I can remember his name.
COLTON WOLINSKI: Hi there!
JODY WEIBLE: Hi, I'm Jody.
COLTON WOLINSKI: Hi Jody, I'm Colton.
CHRISTINA STELLA: The state’s testing residents’ water for free after the spill. Pesticide screenings usually
cost hundreds of dollars. Neighbors have been asking her how to get their wells checked, too.
COLTON WOLINSKI: Okay. We can take samples from inside the home and then at the well. We have a
hydrant. I have —
JODY WEIBLE: Yeah, I've got one in the barn, and I've got a couple that are out back —
CHRISTINA STELLA: Jody plans to grow old in Mead — but with the spill and AltEn’s years of pesticide
pollution, she worries that dream has become dangerous. For herself and future generations.
JODY WEIBLE: I hope it doesn't do anything to Mead’s water since they're upstream. I don't know if
waters swirl underneath. I don't know what they do under there. But it would be the death of
Mead. It would be the death of Mead.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Which is ironic. Because the plant was supposed to be Mead’s next chapter.
In Nebraska Land, by Robert Welch: Ah! Nebraska land, sweet Nebraska land, upon the burning
soils I stand, and I look away, across the plains —
CHRISTINA STELLA: This village’s future has always relied on the roughly 350,000 acres of cropland
surrounding it. But agriculture is volatile — some of its worst days were during the 1980s farm
crisis. Growers emerged from that era with this mandate: find new ways to sell corn and
soybeans. And one answer was already waiting in the wings, thanks in part to the energy crisis
of the 1970s.
BOB HOPE: What's Texaco doing in a field of corn? Not growing it! Texaco is making gasohol. It's
a mixture of 90% Texaco unleaded gasoline and 10% Ethanol made from renewable crops like
CHRISTINA STELLA: By the early 2000s, ethanol had become an industry with a promise for places like
Mead: money for schools, jobs, and, if it was lucky, a future. That pitch wasn’t just being made to
small towns. Americans heard it at the highest levels:
GEORGE W. BUSH: We’ve got to be aggressive about finding alternative sources of fuel, and one
such source is ethanol. Ethanol comes from corn. And we’re pretty good about growing corn
here in America
CHRISTINA STELLA: And a lot of that momentum came from marketing that it was cleaner and greener for
our energy needs. Again, President George W. Bush:
GEORGE W. BUSH: I like the idea of spending money, so that someday an American president says, ‘Show
me the crop report,’ as opposed to, ‘How many barrels of crude oil are we importing?’
CHRISTINA STELLA: Which is why Jody Weible was thrilled in 2004 when a company called E3 BioFuels
proposed opening a plant in town. At the time, she was the chair of Mead’s planning
JODY WEIBLE: It seemed like such a win-win. And the farmers would have been so unhappy if we
would have voted no, because there was a wonderful close outlet for their corn. We thought it
was gonna be a boost for the community. An ethanol plant was the up-and-coming thing.
CHRISTINA STELLA: E3 BioFuels built the plant that would one day become AltEn. But before that, the
company promised to pioneer this brand-new way of making ethanol -- with a system called the
“closed loop”. They built the plant next to Mead’s 30,000 cattle feedlot.
JODY WEIBLE: They were going to use the methane gas from the cow manure to power the ethanol
plant. And then, they would make their ethanol from the field corn from the farmers. And then
the leftover product would be fed right back to the cattle. So it would be a totally self-sustaining
entity. It sounded like a wonderful idea.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Dave Hallberg invented the technology. And in it, he saw ethanol’s future.
DAVE HALLBERG: It was a very exciting time. You know, I like to think, and I believe that we were
CHRISTINA STELLA: Potential investors were wary. But not Dennis Langley, a businessman and lawyer from
Kansas. He owned one of the first deregulated gas pipelines in the country, and, before that, had
a pretty significant career in Washington D.C. as a lawyer for the Senate Judiciary Committee
and a speech-writer for Senator Joe Biden. Langley died in 2017 and in his obituary, his family
described him as this ambitious, larger-than-life personality. The kind of guy who’d partner with
Dave Hallberg to power a plant with cow poop:
DAVE HALLBERG: He said, come out and see me —
CHRISTINA STELLA: Langley’d be the money guy, Dave Hallberg the brains behind the tech. And Mead,
Nebraska? Their pilot project.
DAVE HALBERG: We obviously felt we were doing them a huge service. It was going to employ more
people and pay them better wages and increase the tax base, and it was going to clean up the
CHRISTINA STELLA: Hallberg imagined opening closed loop plants across the Midwest.
DAVE HALLBERG: We felt we could build at least 50 if not 70 complexes, like the one in Mead. That
was the dream.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Which attracted attention — and funding from the government. Just over $50 million
dollars in Nebraska state development bonds and an additional $70 million dollar EPA loan. E3
BioFuels held its groundbreaking ceremony on a sunny September day in 2006.
DAVE HALLBERG: It was a really great day, a lot of you know, stirring speeches. Governor Heineman
showed up. Stephen Johnson, who was the U.S. EPA Administrator. Everybody was filled with
excitement about the potential and what could have been.
CHRISTINA STELLA: But E3 Biofuels’ troubles started months before opening day. Dave Hallberg and Dennis
Langley clashed over how to run the business.
DAVE HALLBERG: He was a brilliant man. He wrote his own documents and contracts. And he would
always put a little poison pill in or a little angle. He was always looking for another angle, and it
made us very nervous.
CHRISTINA STELLA: The two fell out. Hallberg walked away from E3 BioFuels. And Langley finished building
the plant -- which was forced to close just months after opening.
DAVE HALLBERG: They blew up the ethanol plant boiler. How you do that, I don't know. These days, if
you ask people in the ethanol business, they’d say, ‘Well, that’s not even possible,’ but they did.
CHRISTINA STELLA: E3 BioFuels’s production — and finances — never recovered. E3 Biofuels went bankrupt
DAVE HALLBERG: The thing was a disaster. You know, it was just a disaster.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Hallberg says the boiler explosion wasn’t related to his closed-loop system. But
investors didn’t buy that.
DAVE HALLBERG: We made many, many efforts, tried many angles. And, you know, you just can't get
past that first impression. So we finally — we finally just gave up.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Hallberg thought his ethanol plant would change Mead forever. And in a way, it would.
In 2010, a group of investors started transferring the plant’s permits under a new company:
AltEn. And later handed control back to Dennis Langley. And this time, AltEn had a new idea for
DAVE HALLBERG: I mean, how you could have perverted the concept like this is just devastating. It just
tears my heart out. I mean, it's — it’s like, y’know, Frankenstein!
CHRISTINA STELLA: I’m Christina Stella, and you’re listening to The Smell of Money, a radio documentary
from Nebraska Public Media. More after a short break.
[MUSIC BED 0:59]
CHRISTINA STELLA: From Nebraska Public Media, I’m Christina Stella. This is The Smell of Money, a radio
documentary about the AltEn ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska. So, to understand the next part
of the story, we gotta talk about corn - the basis of ethanol. I want you to imagine a
picture-perfect golden ear of corn — that’s called field corn — and it’s what’s typically used to
make ethanol. And, like a lot of Nebraskans, John Vybrial’s family has been growing it for
JOHN VYBRIAL: I moved back home to help my dad farm just about three miles west —
CHRISTINA STELLA: And in late 2014, he was settling back into small-town life after a decade in the Air
JOHN VYBRIAL: The plant was froze solid from the top to the bottom. And I thought, why not try to go
and revitalize something and be productive for our community.
CHRISTINA STELLA: AltEn hired John as an ethanol operator. But people were skeptical. Several farmers
who had supplied corn to E3 BioFuels lost thousands when it went under.
JOHN VYBRIAL: A lot of people asked me like, when I started, like, ‘What are you doing?’ We’ve got to
get it going. The corn market had crashed. Ethanol was the only thing locally that you can see
driving the price up. So might as well be a part of it.
CHRISTINA STELLA: And when AltEn opened in early January 2015, John says, at first, things seemed pretty
normal. Field corn was coming in, and he was excited to start closed-loop production. But then,
one day, John is at work, manning the plant’s machinery, when suddenly he hears a commotion
in the loading area.
JOHN VYBRIAL: It was like all of a sudden, we had 60 trucks sitting out in the parking lot with
seedcorn. I should have known — this is probably not good.
CHRISTINA STELLA: And he says that’s when things at AltEn took a turn. Now, I’ve asked you to imagine an
ear of field corn — now think of a popcorn kernel. That is basically what these trucks were
packed with — bags and bags of seedcorn.
JOHN VYBRIAL: It was like a shock to everybody like, ‘What in the world? What — what are we doing?’
And we were just told, like, ‘This is what we're gonna do.’
CHRISTINA STELLA: And one thing about seedcorn is, companies produce more than can be planted each
JOHN VYBRIAL: The seedcorn is going to the landfills regardless.
CHRISTINA STELLA: But..if you could somehow use this cheap, plentiful stuff -- you’d essentially solve two
problems at once. And in that, AltEn saw an opportunity.
JOHN VYBRIAL: — So AltEn created a market, per se, for it?
CHRISTINA STELLA: But here’s the catch. Around 90% of seedcorn produced in the United States is treated
with pesticides. And that chemical layer — like an M&M shell — caused a lot of problems. Like
JOHN VYBRIAL: Take sidewalk chalk, break it up to where it's sand, and just mix it all up, and throw it in
the air and it's just — it's a film over everything. Just multicolored — different seed companies
had different colors, so you didn't even have to look at the big three brands, like, you knew green,
you knew purple, you knew pink.
CHRISTINA STELLA: And when he would dig the seedcorn out, John says pesticide dust would end up all
over him. He says AltEn didn’t have any rules or training for working with it. One time, he got so
completely covered, he had a coworker film him.
WORKER: This could get really purple!
CHRISTINA STELLA: In the video, he heads outside with a supervisor. And once John steps into the sun, you
can see just how covered he is with the pesticide residue. It’s on clothes, his skin, even his hair
is glowing electric magenta.
JOHN VYBRIAL: — easy!
CHRISTINA STELLA: Then the supervisor takes an air hose, and just starts blowing the pesticide dust off
JOHN VYBRIAL: We didn't have, like suits or anything to put on, like one would think. It was just, at the
end, put on a mask, and go get it done.
CHRISTINA STELLA: The ethanol made from pesticide-treated seedcorn actually comes out fine — but John
questioned if the same could be said of one of its main by-products: distiller’s grain, a kind of
corn mash called wetcake.
JOHN VYBRIAL: It was put directly on the feedlot property, out of sight out of mind.
CHRISTINA STELLA: So AltEn knew that wetcake made from pesticide treated seedcorn wasn’t safe to feed
to cattle, so it broke the closed loop system. And instead, told the state it’d compost some of
the wetcake for local farms.
JOHN VYBRIAL: It never happened. Not one time did we flip a pile over. Now, we would go out there
and make it look like we did something.
CHRISTINA STELLA: State documents show that by late 2017, AltEn had about 36,000 tons of wetcake piled
on its property. Rotting. And it stunk.
JOHN VYBRIAL: I can tell you that it's the worst smell in the world —
MEAD RESIDENT: — like sinus infection snot pouring out of your nose —
MEAD RESIDENT: — most of the terms I would use to describe the smell would be completely
inappropriate for the radio, or children —
MEAD RESIDENT: — it's the smell of money —
CHRISTINA STELLA: Mead had become infamous in Saunders County for its thick stench. If you lived close
to the plant — like Jody Weible — it was inescapable.
JODY WEIBLE: Dead, rotten, and acidic, all in one. It's, I've never smelled anything like it.
CHRISTINA STELLA: What color was the smell?
JODY WEIBLE: Ew. Black with a putrid yellow streak.
CHRISTINA STELLA: And the state warned AltEn that stockpiling the wetcake like this was illegal, and urged
the company to spread it on cropland. Paula Dyas lives off a dirt road near Mead, about six
miles from AltEn. Her property is surrounded by corn fields, with plenty of room for her three big
dogs to roam. She’s always loved animals.
PAULA DYAS: Well, and over the course of the years, the kids have had rabbits that they've
shown at the 4-H fair, the chickens have been shown at the 4-H fair. We had a bucket calf at one
point in time, we had a pony —
CHRISTINA STELLA: In the spring of 2018, Paula was noticing a lot more traffic in front of her house.
PAULA DYAS: And the big trucks that were loaded with the byproduct from the ethanol plant would be
driving back and forth in front of our house, for hours at a time.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Which didn’t seem that weird. Paula grew up farming, and knew it was planting season.
But then, one day, Buddy, her chocolate lab, started acting strange.
PAULA DYAS: He just seemed to be really lethargic. He wasn't really tracking quite right. You know, he
was kind of a little unsteady on his feet.
CHRISTINA STELLA: And his pupils were dilated, like they’d swallowed the iris.
PAULA DYAS: We took him to the vet, but we didn't know what he would have gotten into. And so we
didn't know how to treat it.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Buddy recovered in a few days, and Paula wrote it off. A few weeks later, she noticed a
strong manure smell coming from the fields around her house. And a neighbor told her
something kind of odd.
PAULA DYAS: He actually said that he wouldn't let our dogs eat it.
CHRISTINA STELLA: He told her the material on the field was wetcake from AltEn.
PAULA DYAS: And he was also aware that they were using treated seed.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Paula and her husband tried to keep the dogs away. But one night, she let Athena, her
big white German shepherd, out to go pee. And she took off.
PAULA DYAS: And I went around the house to the east and saw her in the field actually eating stuff.
And within two hours after I brought her back inside, her pupils were 100% dilated, and she was
unable to really walk with any degree of stability. She was very shaky. And was just drooling, had
just saliva just rolling out of her mouth in a puddle.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Paula rushed back to the vet.
PAULA DYAS: And I was really worried that you know, we may actually lose her because just — we didn’t
know what was in the product that was making her sick.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Which got her thinking:
PAULA DYAS: What was it doing to all of the raccoons, the possum, waterfowl that would be migrating,
you know, in the spring, that might get access to that?
CHRISTINA STELLA: She figured AltEn would know if its wetcake was contaminated with pesticides.
PAULA DYAS: I was surprised to hear them tell me those chemicals shouldn't be there anymore, they
would have burned off. That’s what I was told when I called.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Not only did that sound wrong, the company didn’t offer any proof.
PAULA DYAS: And I'm like, I — you know, without a testing report that says there's nothing there, I am
not going to believe that there's nothing there.
CHRISTINA STELLA: So now I’ll tell you that Paula happens to be a senior research scientist for a major
animal pharmaceutical company. So she started digging. First, into scientific literature.
PAULA DYAS: To see whether some university or some organization somewhere had done research to
determine whether you could use treated seedcorn, and what happened to the chemicals in that
process. And I came up with zero articles.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Then, she called the state Department of Environment and Energy.
PAULA DYAS: The general answer was that we don't think there's anything in there that should make
your dog sick.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Its initial advice for Paula? Keep your dogs on a leash. On your five acre property.
PAULA DYAS: And so we said, that's enough, we're gonna have a vet send it off ‘cause I want to know
what's in it.
CHRISTINA STELLA: The vet sent some of the wetcake to Iowa State University’s Veterinary Lab. Which
found seven different pesticides — that could cause reactions like the one her dogs had. Paula
sent the results to the state, and got this:
PAULA DYAS: That, ‘Well, okay, that's not surprising that they're in there, but your test that you had run is
so sensitive, that it could be picking up just very small parts per billion. And that's not anything
that we're going to get too excited about.’
CHRISTINA STELLA: So, she kept digging:
PAULA DYAS: We actually got a tag off of a bag of treated seed corn, okay? And you can read right on
there, and it will say you could actually use the treated seed for ethanol production, but you
cannot spread the byproduct for land application unless it's been tested to show no measurable
CHRISTINA STELLA: To show no measurable residue. Which could lead to air, soil and water contamination.
PAULA DYAS: And so, it seems to me that what was happening here was in direct violation of the tag on
the seed bag.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Which she told the Department of Environment and Energy. It responded — we don’t
regulate wetcake, and sent her to the Department of Agriculture. Which told Paula her complaint
wasn’t really in its wheelhouse either.
PAULA DYAS: They're frustrating interactions because you're wondering, okay, am I not getting a clear
answer from them because I'm not asking the right question?
CHRISTINA STELLA: Here Paula had evidence AltEn’s wetcake might be toxic enough to poison a 90-pound
dog, but she felt like the state wasn’t prepared — or willing — to enforce safety guidelines.
PAULA DYAS: They didn't have any records of the plant doing any testing to look for it. The state
themselves didn't have any record of them doing tests, and I’m like, wouldn’t that have been an
obvious thing to ask for, when you knew that there was pesticide seedcorn going in?
CHRISTINA STELLA: And without any testing of their own, in the fall of 2018, the State Department of
Agriculture gave AltEn a permit to keep spreading wetcake as a “soil conditioner.”
PAULA DYAS: Right over here, yeah, to the east —
CHRISTINA STELLA: On a cold night in February 2019, Paula and her husband woke up to the roar of a
PAULA DYAS: 2, 3 a.m. in the morning, they went, and I saw the tractor lights shining in through the
bedroom window as they went back and forth east, west through the field.
CHRISTINA STELLA: That window overlooks the field next door — where a massive rig was flinging wetcake.
And the next morning, the house wreaked:
PAULA DYAS: Keep in mind that it's the middle of the winter, so the windows are all closed. So that's just
how strong this stuff is.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Jody Weible lives six miles away from Paula, and had heard about the dogs being
poisoned. Around the same time, she was collecting complaints about AltEn’s wetcake and
sending them to the state. A letter from the school district said it couldn’t open the windows, the
stench was so bad. And separately, a local healthcare worker wrote: ‘No one knows what effect
this will have on our health. Please, please help us.’
JODY WEIBLE: I gotta show you a picture —
CHRISTINA STELLA: It’s of her neighbor. Her face is blown up — her eyes nearly swollen shut.
JODY WEIBLE: Her eyes. This was when they spread it in the field across from us, and they took her
into the doctor, and it was environmental. And she hasn't had it since. But when they spread it in
the field, she did.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Jody says the smell gave her headaches, burning eyes, and a persistent cough.
JODY WEIBLE: I have a friend that — they lived in Mead, and she had three kids and her kids were
always sickly, coughing, snotty noses. Charlie, their daughter, had bloody noses all the time.
They moved to Washington state, and within two months, the bloody noses stopped. And so did
all the coughing and all the respiratory issues.
CHRISTINA STELLA: And whether AltEn was to blame for these illnesses became a point of contention in
JODY WEIBLE: People are going, ‘Oh, this country life, you've got to get used to it.’ And some people
would say, ‘Well, they're just trying to make a living and provide jobs.’
CHRISTINA STELLA: But Jody says nearly everyone agreed something had to be done about the smell.
JODY WEIBLE: Because you couldn't do anything outside.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Especially during summer. Any heat supercharged the stench.
JODY WEIBLE: People would come and look at a house for rent or possibly for sale. And it would be a
bad day. They’d go ‘I'm sorry, we can't move here. It stinks.’ We had people move away, because
CHRISTINA STELLA: Like Paula, Jody assumed a smell so bad and so obvious would be easy for the state to
do something about. She called the Department of Environmental and Energy — the Nebraska
Game and Parks Commission — Governor Pete Ricketts’ office — her state senator — and even
JODY WEIBLE: Anybody that would stand still long enough, I contacted them. And the more I got the
runaround, the more determined I was to get to the bottom of it.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Over and over, she heard: we don’t regulate odors, AltEn has permits to do what it’s
doing. And regulators need evidence of contamination before they can take action.
JODY WEIBLE: That’s closing the door after the horse is out!
CHRISTINA STELLA: Public records show Nebraska waited until the spring of 2019 to test AltEn’s waste.
That’s nearly a year after Paula Dyas sent in her test results. Regulators found around ten
pesticides — at combinations and levels so high, the EPA later wrote it couldn’t conclude it
wouldn’t harm people or the environment.
One chemical -- clothianidin -- was being applied to land at 85 times the EPA limit and showed
up in the liquid waste at nearly 300 times the safety limit for drinking water. We asked the state
why it didn’t test AltEn’s waste sooner, and it declined to comment. In May, 2019 — Nebraska’s
Department of Agriculture barred AltEn from spreading any more waste on local farms. But the
company was still allowed to use treated seed. Which led to more contaminated waste, which
led to more violations which led to more frustration.
JODY WEIBLE: For three years, you go back and you look at the records on DEE, and they get cited for
something and they're non-compliant, and cited for something and non-compliant.
CHRISTINA STELLA: And, meanwhile, AltEn’s manager, Scott Tinglehoff, argues its waste still had some use.
SCOTT TINGLEHOFF: Ultimately, what it’s going to be used for is an alternative fuel source.
CHRISTINA STELLA: That’s Tinglehoff in an early 2020 interview with WOWT. I reached out to him several
times for an interview, but after a first phone call, stopped hearing back. At this point, AltEn was
advertising itself as the recycling facility for 98% of North America’s surplus seed corn.
In reality, the state had just given the company a final deadline to clean up its waste: March 1,
- More than a year away.
SCOTT TINGLEHOFF: Timeframe? I don’t know if it’s gonna be weeks or months, but it won’t be years.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Some Mead residents asked: Was this the best Nebraska could do?
ANTHONY SCHUTZ: My take on this thing has always been that there's plenty of freakin’ law
here, right? It's just that somebody has to step up and do something.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Anthony Schutz teaches environmental law at the University of Nebraska’s College of
Law. He’s seen changes in recent decades in how Nebraska regulates companies.
ANTHONGY SCHUTZ: What state government has tried to do over at least the last decade is to become more
kind of user-friendly, rather than being cops. We’ll get further if we work on this together, than we
will if I just tell you what to do.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Under Republican Governor Pete Ricketts, Schutz says the state has doubled down on
that pro-business, voluntary approach.
ANTHONGY SCHUTZ: They don't like regulation! The state has, I mean, these governors have campaigned on
wanting to undo regulation — to cut red tape.
CHRISTINA STELLA: A spokesperson for Governor Ricketts declined to discuss the administration's
approach. But Anthony Schutz says the state had the ability to stop AltEn.
ANTHONGY SCHUTZ: Its entire purpose in the world is to do this, right? And when your state government
says, ‘We are here to partner, we are here to facilitate. We are not here to regulate,’ Then they are
shirking the biggest responsibility that they have. And then there's nobody left to do it!
CHRISTINA STELLA: And so, the sort of tug of war between AltEn polluting and the State issuing violations
continued, until the story went national. In early January 2021 — investigative journalist Carey
Gillam published an article in The Guardian about AltEn. And her reporting pointed the finger
directly at Nebraska for allowing the company to pollute Mead for so long.
JODY WEIBLE: I was so excited, because I thought this is what will break it open, finally.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Jody hoped for big action from the state — and got her wish. On February 4, 2021, DEE
Director Jim Macy ordered the plant to shut down. AltEn’s wetcake stockpile had ballooned to
84,000 tons. And the liquid waste sitting in open lagoons? It could have filled more than 260
Olympic-sized swimming pools. In the State’s order to close, Jim Macy said the wastewater
alone posed an imminent and substantial risk for an “uncontrolled release.”
And so the question became: where will all of it go? And then the polar vortex hit. And in the
middle of the night, one of AltEn’s waste tanks spilled millions of gallons of liquid waste across
the countryside. An uncontrolled release.
MAHMUD FITIL: This here, this is proof in the pudding!
Ní Btháska Stand activist Mahmud Fitil streamed it live. That video has over 18,000 views.
MAHMUD FITIL: This is liquid, no doubt because all the chemicals and s**t that's still in it and it's below
freezing outside. Wake the f**k up to what you're doing to our environment! What are we doing?
CHRISTINA STELLA: This was a worst-case scenario. And while AltEn was responsible for the disaster, two
big questions remained. Could the state have done more to prevent it? And who would clean up
I’m Christina Stella. You’re listening to The Smell of Money from Nebraska Public Media. We’ll be
back in a minute.
[MUSIC BREAK 0:59]
CHRISTINA STELLA: I’m Christina Stella for Nebraska Public Media, and this is The Smell of Money, a radio
documentary about the AltEn ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska.
In mid-February, 2021, soon after the state shut AltEn down and after millions of gallons of
pesticide-filled waste spilled across the countryside, Nebraska’s lawmakers wanted answers.
The Natural Resources Committee called in the Department of Environment and Energy Director.
JIM MACY: I’m Jim Macy, my background, really brief, I started here in 2015 —
CHRISTINA STELLA: And it takes Macy nearly 40 minutes to lay out AltEn’s violations: including faulty
wastewater lagoons, missing records, and dumping contaminated waste against state orders.
JIM MACY: I’m sorry, this is a lot of detail. But it's important to understand that the agency's been out
there a lot, over many years —
CHRISTINA STELLA: He says the state made 77 visits to the plant since its opening. And in the early months
of 2021 alone, issued 11 violations.
JIM MACY: If we find non-compliance, we keep going back in and trying to figure out how we can get
the facility to be in compliance.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Senator Mike Groene of North Platte cuts to the chase.
MIKE GROENE: Your duty is compliance, right? Not noncompliance.
JIM MACY: It is.
MIKE GROENE: How did it get this bad?”
CHRISTINA STELLA: How did it get this bad? The DEE had taken action against AltEn. But their many
citations — and visits — ultimately didn’t protect Mead.
JIM MACY: But The facility itself has to want to do the right thing. It has to want to be in compliance,
and they have to work with us.
CHRISTINA STELLA: But there’s another question in the air, in the
what-did-you-know-and-when-did-you-know-it vein. Did the Department know all along that AltEn
was planning to make ethanol from seedcorn?
JIM MACY: There wasn’t openness and honesty in the application. And that's part of the problem.
CHRISTINA STELLA: So Macy is basically saying that AltEn wasn’t up front with regulators. But in a public
letter from 2012 — three years before AltEn opened — the company alerted State regulators it
was looking into using treated seed. And the state said, ‘Okay.’ But, what it didn’t do was require
AltEn to notify the State or the public if it decided to go ahead with using treated seed.
Environmental lawyer Anthony ANTHONGY SCHUTZ:
ANTHONGY SCHUTZ: Sure, they could have. They didn’t.
CHRISTINA STELLA: So, that’s a missed opportunity. But Schutz says you’ll find stories like this across the
ANTHONGY SCHUTZ: Now, the US has often taken the approach that we don't worry about something until
we know it's a problem. In some sense, this is kind of like what you would expect in an area
CHRISTINA STELLA: But after years of second chances, DEE’s Jim Macy hinted the state was preparing its
JIM MACY: Unfortunately, you get to a point where you start building investigations that can stand
up in court.
CHRISTINA STELLA: On March 1, 2021, AltEn blew through its final deadline to clean up the waste. And
Governor Pete Ricketts opened his weekly press conference with a special guest.
GOV. RICKETTS: I'm going to welcome our Attorney General Doug Peterson to say a few remarks
CHRISTINA STELLA: FYI, Nebraska’s Attorney General Doug Peterson appeared over Zoom and sounds kind
DOUG PETERSON: We have filed a complaint in Lancaster County District Court —
CHRISTINA STELLA: This was Nebraska's nuclear option, a 97-page, 18-count massive lawsuit against
DOUGH PETERSON: — this is proudly the most significant one we've filed since I've been in office.
CHRISTINA STELLA: The lawsuit orders AltEn to clean up all of its waste, once and for all. Plus a $10,000
dollar-a-day fine for each violation. Governor Pete Ricketts:
GOV. RICKETTS: This is a company that is terribly managed and has demonstrated that consistent
lack of compliance with the directions of our environmental laws and our Department of
Environment and Energy.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Residents rejoiced. But at the same time, in its dozens of pages, some saw an index of
Nebraska’s failure to regulate AltEn — and an attempt to save face. Anthony Schutz
ANTHONGY SCHUTZ: Here's a 97-page lawsuit, which actually, I think kind of like, didn't cut quite in, the way
that they wanted it to because it demonstrates like this is a huge problem.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Because if you can write a 97-page complaint — and publicly highlight how extensive it
ANTHONGY SCHUTZ: Then where were you for the last three years?
CHRISTINA STELLA: Plus, this lawsuit did not guarantee a timeline for the cleanup, or a happy ending. And
Mead needs clear answers about the extent and impact of AltEn’s pollution.
JUDY WU-SMART: I would like to get that North culvert sampled though —
CHRISTINA STELLA: Judy Wu-Smart runs the University of Nebraska’s Bee Lab — bee as in honeybee — and
around 2017, her research hives in Mead started dying over, and over, and over again of what
she calls systemic pesticide pollution. So, on a foggy morning this past March, graduate student
Sheldon Brummell is crouched over a culvert, taking water samples. He’s poking a yardstick into
the water fitted at the end with a little plastic cup.
SHELDON BRUMMELL: You'll see, at the next one we're about to take, it's a night and day
difference. I’m gonna be grossed out touching it with this stick.
We drive to the next culvert, where the water is a cloudy brown color — and it smells awful. Like
a rotting alien — part organic, part chemical. It’ll give you an instant headache.
CHRISTINA STELLA: So this liquid right here, this you would not touch with your bare hands.
BRUMMELL: No, this is — this is where all the water — the “water” — from that spill came down.
CHRISTINA STELLA: EPA testing found high levels of 11 pesticides in the spill collected at this spot.
Sheldon’s duct taped garbage bags over his pants like improvised waders.
SHELDON BRUMMELL: This is where they had a pump. And they had the piping running all the
way down to where it had pooled up and they had to pump it all back.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Judy Wu-Smart’s been investigating the source of Mead’s bee dieoffs for years. In 2019
— the Bee Lab found levels of pesticides so high in local plants, Wu-Smart thought it was a
JUDY WU-SMART: So here we have a chemical mixture, lots of fungicides, neonicotinoids, other
agricultural herbicides and insecticides at lower levels.
CHRISTINA STELLA: And the spill has only complicated getting answers for Mead. The University of
Nebraska is using a $200,000 private donation to track impacts from AltEn’s pollution on public
health and the environment. But it hopes to raise $10 million dollars to extend the study for a
JUDY WU-SMART: It's — it's a long going process.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Which makes sense. AltEn claimed it was processing treated seed from 100 different
companies. That’s unheard of, and poses equally unheard of questions about environmental
JUDY WU-SMART: I mean, these compounds aren't like your old chemicals where you drink some, you
die, or you have instant issues.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Neonicotinoid pesticides can harm animals’ immune systems, cognition, motor
function, and even reproduction. Even less is known about fungicides, but when combined:
JUDY WU-SMART: They have this ability to enhance the toxicity, or synergize other compounds and
chemicals in a chemical mixture. We don't really know the impact of those mixtures.
CHRISTINA STELLA: And she says consistent monitoring isn’t happening — and University resources are
stretched thin. That is a major stress point for Mead. In early April, advocate groups from across
Nebraska held a live streamed town hall for concerned residents at a local church.
JODY WEIBLE: Hi, welcome! You can go on in, if you want —
CHRISTINA STELLA: Jody Weible ushers people in. She’s got bootcut jeans on, and a pink t-shirt that says a
little coffee and a whole lot of Jesus. And there’s a bit of a giddy, reunion vibe. A lot of people
haven’t seen each other because of COVID.
GUEST: Hi! How are you?
JODY WEIBLE: I’m fine, how are you?
GUEST: I’m good. It’s so nice out, you can’t go wrong!
CHRISTINA STELLA: Jody’s watching the door for the other Mead resident speaking tonight, Paula Dyas, to
JODY WEIBLE: Paula?
PAULA DYAS: I thought that was you! Yeah, you’re Jody!
JODY WEIBLE: Yes!
CHRISTINA STELLA: And about 60 people show up, even some from surrounding towns.
GUEST: Yeah, we're, we live by Swedeberg. And we can smell it.
JODY JODY WEIBLE: Oh my gosh!
CHRISTINA STELLA: Jody told me earlier that she worried people wouldn’t show up. And, I get it. A few
people I’d spoken to told me they don’t want to be seen as overly critical of AltEn. You never
know whose kid or spouse might work there. People don’t want to stir up any hard feelings.
But some are way past worrying about that. Mead Covenant’s pastor, John Schnell, leans
against the back wall scanning the crowd.
JOHN SCHNELL: I think they’re frustrated, I think people just think, you know, nobody really
listens. And if you've been on the journey the last five years, I mean, persistence, as we've had to
just be persistent.
CHRISTINA STELLA: He’s happy with this turnout, but some faces are notably absent.
JOHN SCHNELL: I would be happier if we had a few of our local superintendents or if we had some
state representatives here actually listening to some of these things. That’d make me really
CHRISTINA STELLA: And a few minutes later, he kicks off the meeting.
JOHN SCHNELL: Lord, as we've prayed for just, for you to reveal things, I'm astonished of all the truth
that's come out about this situation —
CHRISTINA STELLA: Then former State Senator Al Davis, who now lobbies for the Nebraka’s Sierra Club
chapter, takes over, and for two hours, a panel including Jody, Paula, and Judy Wu-Smart gives a sort of AltEn 101 presentation, ending with a Q&A.
AL DAVIS: So don't be shy. We're here to answer questions.
CHRISTINA STELLA: And the air fills with six years worth of Mead’s questions and angst around AltEn.
Where is the waste going to go? Is my water safe to drink? What do I tell my doctor?
RESIDENT: I know a lot of people in this area that are having health issues, and we're hearing
nothing about it. But we need to do something for our neighbors and our families.
OTHER RESIDENTS: Yes, thank you! Yes.
CHRISTINA STELLA: And what really starts to become clear here is how many resources will be needed to
even address these questions.
RESIDENT: I’ve lived here my whole life. This meeting has been informative, I've learned a lot.
But we want real answers. You know, we tried to have a meeting with the DEE, and they wouldn't
show up. So what did that make us residents feel like? Totally forgotten and left out!
CHRISTINA STELLA: As the night wraps up, Pastor Schnell urges his neighbors to turn that feeling into
action. To keep the pressure on Nebraska’s leaders.
JOHN SCHNELL: If we don’t do it — and persist — it’s not going to get done. How many of you're tired
of looking for the government to solve your problems? Well, here's your prime opportunity to do
it yourself. So let's just do it ourselves —
CHRISTINA STELLA: Besides one county board member, no other local, state, or Federal leaders showed.
But since that night — there have been some developments:
A representative for Governor Ricketts and the DEE told us in a statement the wellbeing of the
people of Mead and the surrounding area is of the utmost importance.
In early June, the state announced companies that once supplied seedcorn to AltEn, including
big names like Bayer, Syngenta, and Corteva, will plan and pay for initial clean up at the plant. It
means the cost won’t fall entirely on taxpayers.
Since the big spill in February 2021 Nebraska has spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars on
its response. The state has also set up a public information portal to alert residents of any
But, it’s still unclear who will pay if remediation is needed across Saunders County, where AltEn’s
waste ended up via dumping, the spill, or runoff. In early July, state testing showed a private
pond six miles from AltEn is a dead zone. But, for now, the village’s public drinking water, which
is sourced upstream from the plant, is fine.
Nebraska also recently outlawed using treated seed corn to make ethanol. But the truth is, some
of AltEn’s damage is permanent.
JOHN VYBRIAL: AltEn has always refused to answer questions from anybody. Nobody will stand up
and just say, ‘We screwed up. We're going to fix it.’
CHRISTINA STELLA: John Vybrial, who worked at the plant, says that’s made AltEn a sore subject for some,
and even changed relationships. Like that supervisor who blew pesticide dust off him in the
JOHN VYBRIAL: And I told him that, like, I was going to say some things that maybe didn't sit well. But
like, it just is what it is at this point. And he didn't respond.
CHRISTINA STELLA: He says they’re not as close as they used to be.
JOHN VYBRIAL: We went ice fishing, he came to my wedding. Everybody that worked out there, even
though we all didn't always get along, it was like a family.
CHRISTINA STELLA: And that’s made it hard to process everything that’s come out about AltEn since.
JOHN VYBRIAL: How incredibly gullible I was to think that this was any sort of good idea. But it would
appear that it was all set up to be exactly what it is today. And that's an industrial catastrophe.
CHRISTINA STELLA: And in that point right there — you can see just how badly this plant’s original promise,
of revitalization, of a future for Mead, has been broken. And how AltEn’s contamination could
have happened to any ethanol town. But Mead does not want your pity. Because despite it all —
and the uncertainties ahead — life in this town goes on. Like the annual Mead Days festival. Elm
street, near the town square, is lined with easily half the town. People come from miles around.
They’re all waiting for the parade to start.
JODY WEIBLE: We didn't do it last year because of COVID but, yep, every year. We used to ride the
horses in the parade. Oh, I loved it. I loved it. I love this town!
CHRISTINA STELLA: For a village this size, Mead Days is a blowout. There are snowcones, a food court,
inflatable rides, and a volleyball tournament. Jody’s got her chair set up for the parade. And she
wants to show me something, a picture on her phone.
JODY WEIBLE: It's gonna be on one of the vehicles in the parade.
CHRISTINA STELLA: It’s the local fire chief’s pickup truck with big white letters painted across the back.
JODY WEIBLE: Says ‘Alt-En sucks.’
CHRISTINA STELLA: And then the floats start to come — firetrucks and ambulances throwing candy.
JODY WEIBLE: [Jody, delighted laughter] Smarties! Thank you! Oh, yes!
RESIDENT: Go, go, go, go!
RESIDENT: Hey, you guys, let your sister get some!
CHRISTINA STELLA: And of course, vintage cars.
JODY WEIBLE: Oh! My neighbor! That was my neighbor! He did drive it in the parade, a Studebaker. I
didn't even know they made pickups!
CHRISTINA STELLA: Moments like these are why Jody feels so protective of Mead. You can feel it sitting
next to her. This little corner of the world is her home.
JODY WEIBLE: I've never lived in a town like this. It doesn't shut you out. It welcomes you in, it takes
care of their people.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Then Jody spots her daughter on her church’s float coming up the road. She’s singing
The Battle Hymn of The Republic.
[SONG: His army marches on — ]
CHRISTINA STELLA: And in that moment, I thought about something Jody told me the first time we met.
She’d just laid out her worst fear about AltEn. That its years of polluting Saunders County put a
skull and crossbones on Mead’s reputation. That it’d become a ghost town.
So I asked her:
CHRISTINA STELLA: Have you thought about moving away?
JODY WEIBLE: No. Nope, I’m not gonna leave. I’m too stubborn.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Too stubborn. And like Jody, Mead isn’t going anywhere.
I’m Christina Stella and this has been The Smell of Money from Nebraska Public Media.
Kerry Donahue was the editor. Fact-checking by Sam Cai. Peregrine Andrews did the sound
design. Dennis Kellogg is the news director of Nebraska Public Media.
Special thanks to Gabriella Parsons for additional reporting, and to the residents of Mead who
generously gave their time.
And for more information about this documentary, including a complete transcript, you can head
to NebraskaPublicMedia.org. Thanks for listening.
KAYTE YOUNG: I'm Kayte Young. Thanks for listening to this special edition of Earth eats. We'll be back next week.