OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers gave initial approval Thursday to a bill that would bar ethanol plants from using chemically treated seed corn to make their product in response to a small-town facility that's facing heavy criticism and a lawsuit for repeated environmental violations.
The measure that lawmakers advanced 43-0 is aimed at the AltEn Ethanol plant in Mead, a town of 567 people about 35 miles west of Omaha. The plant is the only one in Nebraska that uses pesticide-covered seed corn that's considered unsuitable for other uses, such as animal feed.
For years, residents of Mead have complained about a stench coming from the plant and reported bloody noses, headaches and trouble breathing. No one has confirmed whether the health symptoms are tied to the plant, but state regulators filed a lawsuit this month alleging that plant officials repeatedly failed to comply with orders to clean up wastewater and used corn around the plant.
“This is a very important bill," said Sen. Bruce Bostelman, a farmer from Brainard whose district includes Mead.
Sen. Megan Hunt, of Omaha, said she was concerned that the plant's waste could have a long-term impact on the health of Mead residents.
“The people are going to be suffering the effects of this, potentially for decades,” she said.
The plant shut down in February after the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy ordered it to stop discharging wastewater into nearby lagoons. A short time later, a pipe at the plant burst and spilled 4 million gallons of contaminated waste into nearby ditches and waterways.
The Nebraska attorney general's office sued the plant on March 1, saying state environmental officials had tried to work collaboratively with plant officials and gave them a year to comply with earlier cleanup orders. Gov. Pete Ricketts said the plant was “terribly managed” and doesn't reflect the rest of the state's ethanol industry. The University of Nebraska also plans to study the health and environmental impacts of the pollution on the area.
AltEn officials have said they're still working to fix the issues raised by state regulators.
Sen. Tom Brandt, a corn farmer from Plymouth, said the bill advanced by lawmakers should prevent future problems. Nebraska is the nation's second-largest ethanol producer, behind neighboring Iowa.
“It's unfortunate we had a bad actor in the industry,” he said.
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