Residents in Mead, Nebraska, smelled something rotting. The odor was incessant, and people began reporting eye and throat irritation, and nosebleeds. Then, entire colonies of bees started dying. Reports of birds and butterflies appearing disoriented started coming in. That was followed by reports of dogs growing ill, also showing signs of disorientation along with dilated pupils, according to the Guardian.

Mead is a town of 500 people. It’s so tiny residents don’t even call it a town; they call it a village. The farming industry is the dominant source of revenue for Mead. The area provides a company called AltEn with corn corps. AltEn is an ethanol plant that turns corn into biofuel. But after multiple complaints to state and federal officials, and an inquiry by a University of Nebraska researcher, evidence points to AltEn for the rotting smell and illness among wildlife and pets.

Biofuel plants, like AltEn, are supposed to help the environment. The plant uses high-starch grains such as corn to produce upwards of 25 million gallons of ethanol per year, a practice regulators generally hail as an environmentally-friendly source for auto fuel. Ethanol plants typically also produce a byproduct called distillers grains to sell as nutritious livestock feed. But AltEn has been using seed coated with fungicides and insecticides, including those known as neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” in its production process.

AltEn now has mounds of toxic fermented grain mush onsite. They also distributed it to other farms in the area as a “soil conditioner.” Some researchers say the toxic waste is polluting water and soil, and probably also posing a health threat to animals and people. They point to testing ordered by state officials that found neonics in AltEn waste at levels many times higher than what is considered safe.

Now, one researcher is looking to hemp to help clean up the soil. “It’s a miracle crop, a super crop,” said University Nebraska Agronomy professor Ismail Dweikat to KETV 7. He points out that hemp was used for soil remediation after the Chornobyl disaster in Ukraine. 

“The plant is going to grow and absorb, suck up all these bad chemicals in the soil. We could plant it there and then harvest it and do experiments. See how much chemical has in it,” Dweikat said.

But Nebraska’s hemp laws make it overly complicated for researchers, like Dweikat, to conduct studies legally. The Hemp Farming Act of 2019 permits the cultivation, processing, and regulation of hemp. It treats researchers the same as commercial producers, however, requiring them to pay licensing and permitting fees. Dweikat says it costs $800 per plot, which is outrageously expensive for a facility that operates on acres of land. 

“We are not making money out of our research,” Dweikat said. “We are doing it to benefit the farmers… I don’t have the funds to buy these licenses.”

The Hemp Bill originally exempted researchers from having to pay fees, but the clause was eventually stripped out at the request of the governor, according to the chairman of the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee.

State Sen. Carol Blood said changes need to be made. “We’ve created so many hurdles that we’ve actually missed opportunities that would benefit us in so many ways. And so, really, the legislature needs to get on the ball. We need to amend [the Hemp Farming Act].”

The AltEn Facility Response Group is comprised of several seed companies voluntarily participating in the clean-up. They’re expected to start submitting a remediation plan in the fall, according to a spokesperson.

Meanwhile, Dweikat hopes they will consider using hemp. “If somebody approached me to work on this project or to help them with consulting, anything, I’d be happy to do it,” he said.

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