Five seed companies are seeking damages from Nebraska ethanol company AltEn and related businesses and individuals for cleanup of pesticide-contaminated materials and wastewater at the company’s Mead, Neb., site.

Two suits were filed in federal court in Nebraska Tuesday: Pioneer Hi-Bred and its parent company, Corteva Agriscience, along with AgReliant Genetics, Beck’s Superior Hybrids and Winfield Solutions filed suit seeking a jury trial to determine the amount of damages. They also want the court to declare that any asset transfers are void under Nebraska law and to enjoin the businesses from making any further transfers.

Separately, Syngenta Seeds has sued most of the same parties, including Tanner Shaw, who allegedly controlled AltEn, Mead Cattle Company and Green Disposal. That suit makes similar claims.

“As a former customer of AltEn, we are frustrated with how AltEn handled materials at its own site and its failure to follow label requirements and the specific safe-handling procedures outlined in Corteva’s agreement with AltEn, as well as its lack of compliance with federal and state environmental regulations,” Corteva said in a statement.

"While the FRG has made significant progress in site stabilization, to date, AltEn has not participated in any actions to stabilize or address the environmental conditions at its own site and, in some cases, has hindered the FRG’s work," Syngenta said, referring to the AltEn Facility Response Group (FRG), which formed to address cleanup at the site about a year ago. That group was formed after a frozen pipe on an anaerobic digester at the facility ruptured, releasing waste materials including manure from the 4-million-gallon digester tank, according to the Pioneer Hi-Bred lawsuit.

Bayer, which also is a member of the FRG, is thus far the only one not to sue. “As each company had its own agreement with AltEn, each company must then evaluate their own legal approach and strategy," Bayer said. "Bayer continues to consider our legal path forward even as we remain committed to our participation as a member of the FRG.”

AltEn “has failed to undertake any efforts to clean up the February 2021 Discharge Event and has still not participated in any cleanup efforts to date,” the four-company lawsuit says.

Syngenta said in its complaint that the defendants “mismanaged and ultimately abandoned the AltEn Facility last winter, leaving significant environmental risks,” including “millions of gallons of untreated wastewater.” 

“Thousands of tons of waste from AltEn’s ethanol refining process remained unattended,” Syngenta said. “Environmental controls were lacking or nonexistent."

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Included in the waste are 250,000 cubic yards of pesticide-contaminated “wet cake,” which FRG has proposed covering “to reduce odor and prevent stormwater from coming into contact with [it],” the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy said. 

NDEE issued an emergency order a year ago prohibiting AltEn from discharging wastewater. The facility shut down its ethanol operation Feb. 9 and the wastewater discharge occurred Feb. 12. The state has filed a complaint in Saunders County. 

The companies supplied seed coated with pesticides to AltEn, which it then used as a raw material to produce ethanol. Mead Cattle operated a feedlot next to the plant that supplied manure that went into two digesters to produce methane used to power AltEn’s ethanol production. Biochar also was manufactured from distiller's grains.

“AltEn failed to properly handle, store, and otherwise manage the seed and the byproducts from the ethanol manufacturing process in violation of federal and state laws and AltEn’s contractual commitments to Pioneer, AgReliant, and Beck’s, and AltEn’s commitments to Winfield,” those companies’ lawsuit said. 

High levels of neonicotinoids have been detected on the AltEn property, but NDEE says levels found in nearby drinking water wells are below EPA human health bench marks. However, the contaminants flowed as far as six miles from the AltEn site, according to the Lincoln Journal-Star.

In addition to the wastewater release, there has been “stockpiling of thousands of tons of wet cake byproduct, and the mismanagement of millions of gallons of wastewater in lagoons perilously close to failure,” the four companies’ suit said.

Their complaint continued: 

“Instead of complying with various emergency orders issued by the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy and engaging in remediation efforts, AltEn and its officers and affiliates — led by Tanner Shaw — have (i) abandoned the site, (ii) sold off their assets to prevent their creditors (including the state and plaintiffs) from having access to assets necessary to perform remediation and reimburse plaintiffs for the costs they have incurred at the site, (iii) hindered the response and stabilization efforts, and (iv) refused to undertake or participate in any way in ongoing response and stabilization activities performed by plaintiffs and other seed companies.”

An attorney for AltEn was not immediately available for comment.

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