Nebraska Public Media investigates a polluted community’s fight for its future

LINCOLN, Neb. — An investigative radio documentary produced by Nebraska Public Media News reveals how residents of one community are putting up a big fight to save their tiny village from pollution. “The Smell of Money: Mead, Nebraska’s Fight for Its Future” airs on radio at 7 p.m. CT, Wednesday, Aug. 4 and 9 a.m. CT, Friday, Aug. 6.

The months-long investigation for the radio program includes a comprehensive look at the history of an ethanol plant in Mead, Neb. It begins with a company’s promise for innovation and continues with the story of an environmental disaster that could have long-term implications. The hour-long Nebraska Public Media News report also uncovers new information regarding what state officials knew about the process AltEn was using for ethanol production.

When the AltEn plant opened in Mead in 2015, it seemed like a new chapter for the town’s shuttered ethanol plant. Located 35 miles west of Omaha, Mead is home to just over 600 residents and community leaders who wanted to revitalize their small town.

Ethanol is usually manufactured using field corn, but AltEn presented another idea: using leftover seed corn. It was plentiful and cheap, but treated with pesticides that contaminated AltEn’s waste and created a smell so foul that residents feared it was making them sick. At the time, few suspected their community would effectively become a landfill for most of U.S. agriculture’s surplus seed corn.

“The Smell of Money: Mead, Nebraska’s Fight for Its Future” includes perspective from area residents who worried about their own health when bees and fish started dying, and dogs got sick. And, it follows their years of complicated back-and-forth with state and environmental officials as the community searched for answers and ways to protect its health, water and future.

By using the treated seed corn, the byproduct of the ethanol created by AltEn contained a cocktail of nearly a dozen different pesticides at levels that far exceeded safety thresholds for people and animals. The company was not only storing it by the tens-of-thousands of tons on their property – it was also distributing the waste across the county for farmers to spread on their fields.

In “The Smell of Money: Mead, Nebraska’s Fight for Its Future,” Nebraska Public Media News explores the history of the AltEn plant from its beginnings until the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy ordered it to shut down on Feb. 4, 2021. Just days after closing, a 4-million-gallon waste tank at the plant split open in the middle of the night, sending toxic waste spewing miles across the countryside.


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