This article is part of FERN’s series Switchyard-FERN Special Food Issue 2023
Judy Wu-Smart brings me to the scene of the crime. It’s a green yard framed by trees, with a patch of flowers in the middle, set among farm fields half an hour north of Lincoln, Nebraska. A perfect spot for her bees, she thought.
Wu-Smart is an entomologist at the University of Nebraska, and an expert on bees. She’s a little bee-like herself, constantly moving, speaking quickly, as though foraging for information.
In 2017, she set up four hives at this location, wooden boxes stocked with the beginnings of thriving bee colonies. These were new experiments, and Wu-Smart hoped they’d be a respite from the contentiousness she’d navigated in graduate school, when she’d studied controversial insecticides called neonicotinoids.
Instead, she planned to study how bee colonies respond to different features in the landscape: to plots of pollinator-friendly flowers, or lines of trees separating them from cornfields. Immediately, though, disaster struck. She and her assistant found dead bees piling up at the entrances to their hives. “We just kind of stood there,” Wu-Smart recalled. “Your heart sinks and you just think, ‘What is going on with this colony?’ You go to another location a quarter of a mile away—same thing.”
Wu-Smart’s researcher instincts kicked in. This was a mystery to be solved, and she saw one obvious clue. The bees exhibited “classic signs of pesticide poisoning,” she said. “Shaking and trembling, tongues sticking out.”
Her team of graduate students and research assistants started looking for traces of pesticides in the dead bees and their food. They found many, but no prime suspect. “There were definitely chemicals present, but nothing at levels that would explain the losses,” Wu-Smart said.
The next year, in 2018, it happened again. The bees in her hives died in droves. Wu-Smart’s thoughts turned to neonicotinoids. “Neonics,” as they’re also known, are among the most widely used pesticides in U.S. agriculture, deployed as a coating on most seeds of the country’s biggest crops, such as corn and soybeans, before those seeds are planted. Globally, they are a multibillion-dollar business. But scientists have found evidence that they are harming pollinators like bees, which play a vital role in the food system. The European Union has moved to ban neonics. The agriculture industry in the U.S. is fighting hard to defend them. Academic scientists who venture into this fight tend to emerge with bruises.
“When I started this position, I actually made a conscious decision to do research that was non-neonic related,” Wu-Smart told me.
Neonics had to be on the list of suspects. She knew that there have been cases of bee die-offs during corn planting, when machinery blows insect-killing dust from neonicotinoid seed coatings into the air. This was Nebraska, after all, with cornfields blanketing the state. Maybe it was corn seeds that were causing the die-off.
So the next year, 2019, Wu-Smart waited until July to set up her hives, avoiding the planting season. The bees still died. Her frustration was mounting. “I’m a new faculty member, a new professor. You can’t start a new research program if you can’t keep bees alive!” she said.
One of her graduate students brought in lab results that seemed to make no sense. They showed shockingly high levels of neonicotinoids in nearby milkweed plants, 100 times higher than what it takes to kill bees. But the highest levels were in milkweeds near drainage ditches and streams, not close to crop fields, where neonics are actually used. “My first thought was, this is a mistake,” Wu-Smart said. But more tests showed the same result.
Perhaps, she thought, local governments were adding insecticides to drainage ditches to fight mosquitoes. On May 20, 2020, she sent an email to an official at Nebraska’s Department of Agriculture, asking for advice. Tim Creger, the department’s pesticide program manager, wrote back with a revelation. He explained that just two miles north of her bee hives, there was a factory making ethanol from discarded corn seed that was coated with neonicotinoid insecticides. Ethanol factories are giant distilleries that consume corn. The grain is ground up, soaked in water, and fermented, releasing alcohol. What’s left, a mash called distillers grains or wet cake, normally goes into cattle feed, along with nutrients recovered from the stream of liquid waste.
But this plant, run by a company called AltEn, was different. It functioned as a disposal site for unsold seed corn, all of it coated with pesticides. Some of the biggest names in the seed business, including Monsanto (which was later acquired by Bayer), Syngenta, and Pioneer, were sending AltEn thousands of truckloads of excess inventory each year. It was cheaper than alternative ways to dispose of this toxic waste.
AltEn fed all of the pesticide-coated corn into its fermentation tanks. It created normal ethanol, but the byproducts, such as wet cake, were loaded with pesticide residues, which couldn’t by law be fed to cattle. It was piling up in strangely green-hued mounds. According to tests that were carried out later, a single ounce of this wet cake contained enough neonicotinoid insecticide to kill hundreds of thousands of bees on contact. AltEn had persuaded a few nearby farmers to spread some of it on their fields as fertilizer. The pesticide-laced liquid waste, meanwhile, filled giant rectangular ponds.
Nebraska’s environmental regulators had known about this almost from the very beginning, but for most of that time they’d paid little attention to the ecological impact. They didn’t think those risks were covered by the regulations they were assigned to enforce. They had released little information about AltEn’s pesticide problem to the public.
Wu-Smart had trouble grasping the implications at first. “I had a lot of catching up to do,” she said. “What is normal ethanol processing? What happens with the byproducts normally?”
She took a drive, found the AltEn site, and traced the waterways that led from there toward her bee hives. She came across a pile of wet cake that was sitting beside a gravel road. “That’s when it hit me,” she said. “The smell was so pungent you could barely breathe. Seeing that pesticide-loaded waste sitting right next to a culvert with rainwater puddling around it, with plants blooming around it. It’s just a feeling of complete disgust, disappointment, surprise. Like, how could this have happened?”
Later observations confirmed that her bees had been poisoned by water runoff and windblown dust from piles of pesticide-laden waste at the ethanol plant. It was a uniquely uncontrolled release of neonicotinoids, and she had put her bees right on its doorstep. “Fate. It’s got a terrible sense of humor,” she said with a short, bitter laugh.
It was a scandal-in-waiting, and it was about to blow up. Within a year, AltEn’s misdeeds would be exposed for everyone to see, provoking tough questions for government regulators and seed companies.
The resolution of Wu-Smart’s mystery, however, opened the door to a bigger one, and it put her back in the hot spot of neonic controversy that she’d once hoped to avoid. The scandal at AltEn, once it broke, turned a spotlight on the risks of pesticide-treated seeds when they’re used exactly as intended.
Every year, those seeds are deposited in more than a hundred million acres of American cropland. The insect-killing coatings on these seeds are taken up by plant roots and migrate into pollen and nectar; they wash into streams, or persist in the soil. Their effects on the ecosystem are often subtle, but as scientists look for them, they’re finding more and more of them, starting with pollinators like native bees.
A kind of mental and regulatory blind spot once shielded the routine use of pesticide-coated seeds from scrutiny, just as it left state officials in Nebraska oddly uninterested in the thousands of truckloads of seed corn arriving at the AltEn plant. Judy Wu-Smart’s bees helped bring those risks out of obscurity. The battle over what to do about them, though, is just beginning.
Neonicotinoid-coated seeds spread through American farming twenty years ago. The amazing thing is how long it took for people to pay attention to them. I missed it, too. I interviewed dozens of seed company executives and scientists during this period, and combed through their reports to investors, but neonics never crossed my radar. Like a lot of people, I was focused on a much flashier phenomenon that was transforming the seed industry—the arrival of genetically modified crops.
GMOs didn’t just divert people’s attention. They helped ease the entry of neonics. Companies suddenly could charge top dollar for seeds with novel genes that fought off insect pests and made killing weeds easy. According to USDA statistics, the average cost of an acre’s worth of corn seed soared from $32 to $82 between 2001 and 2010. And as a result, farmers barely noticed, or at least didn’t mind, the extra few dollars they paid for a coating of neonicotinoid insecticide.
“It’s really cheap insurance, like extra insurance in our back pocket,” said Bryon Chvatal, who grows corn, soybeans, and hay in eastern Nebraska. “We put the seed out there hoping for the best, but we’ve got to try and do the best we can to help that seed out.” Applying these treatments, he said, is practically “a no-brainer.”
Before around 2000, relatively few corn or soybean seeds went into the ground accompanied by insecticides. Today, neonics cover the overwhelming majority of corn seeds in the country, and probably half of all soybean seeds. “It was like, they didn’t exist, and then a few years later they were everywhere,” especially in corn, said Maggie Douglas, an entomologist at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Curiously, they flooded the market without much hard evidence that farmers actually needed them. The products promised to protect seeds and young plants from pests like wireworms, maggots, or aphids. But they’ve delivered unimpressive results in field trials carried out by scientists at universities, with non-industry funding. Most soybean trials show negligible economic benefit from neonics. In corn, treated seed boosts farmer income in some experiments, but not in others. The difference, in any case, isn’t so dramatic that it would convince so many farmers, practically overnight, to buy seed treatments.
In reality, farmers weren’t really doing the choosing. Seed companies were. In the case of corn, their biggest and most valuable product, the companies simply ran all of their seed through centralized processing plants, covering each kernel with neonics. It became part of the standard corn package, like tires on a new car.
It also left the companies with an expensive hazardous waste problem. According to industry executives, about 10 percent of treated corn seed often remains unsold at the end of the year. Seeds are perishable products, and that unsold, pesticide-coated seed eventually has to be sent to landfills or incinerators.
To understand what drove the neonic phenomenon, I spoke to Mac Ehrhardt, co-owner of Albert Lea Seed in southern Minnesota. Ehrhardt has deep roots in the seed business, but he also looks at it critically, the way an outsider might. “Do we need to treat all the seed? I think the answer is: No, we don’t,” he told me. Seed companies do it anyway, because of competition. Each one is constantly trying to convince farmers that its seed offers bigger, more consistent yields. “You’ve had, in the seed industry, an arms race to maximize seed protection,” he said.
His company is a minor player in that arms race. About two thirds of the seed corn he sells is organic. But most of the rest is coated with insecticides, just on the off chance that this year might bring an infestation of seed corn maggot or some other pest. “I’m not proud of that,” Ehrhardt said. “But that’s the market that our conventional non-GMO seed competes in.”
Measured by the total area of land affected, neonics are today the most widely used insecticides in the country. “The pattern of neonic use in the United States today is really a 1950s, pre-Silent Spring approach,” Douglas said. “It says, let’s take this incredibly powerful insecticide and use it, in the case of corn, on virtually every single acre, regardless of what pest might be out there.”
In the fall of 2010, soon after Maggie Douglas started graduate school at Penn State, she went looking for bugs that would eat slugs. Slugs chow down on freshly sprouted crops, and they can be a big problem for farmers. They’re a particular problem for environmentally conscious farmers who are trying to build healthy soil, rich in humus and microorganisms, because it makes good slug habitat, too. Douglas hoped to find natural enemies of slugs that could help keep the pests in check. She set up a small, terrarium-scale experiment with soybean seedlings, slugs, and beetles that she was auditioning for the role of slug predator.
“I came back a couple of days later, and most of the predators were dead,” she said when I visited her this summer in her office at Carlisle. “I started thinking through what might have happened. And realized, ‘Oh, those seeds that I planted in these little terrariums, they were, like, bright orange.” That dye signaled the presence of pesticides, including neonics.
Douglas wondered: Was that chemical coating really so powerful that it could kill all the beetles? The question led, eventually, to a large field study with a stunning result. Slugs that fed on sprouting soybeans accumulated neonics in their bodies. Being mollusks, not insects, they were relatively unharmed. But it made them poisonous to beetles that do, in fact, feed on slugs. In this experiment, fields in which soybean seeds were treated with neonics had fewer beneficial beetles, more slugs, and produced smaller harvests than similar fields in which seeds were untreated. Neonics were hurting the crop, not helping it.
Meanwhile, researchers were linking neonics to piles of dead bees at hives in Germany, Canada, and in the U.S. corn belt. The bees were dying during the spring planting season. Christian Krupke, an entomologist at Purdue University, discovered that widely used planting equipment that employs air pressure to move seeds through the mechanism was blowing dust from seed coatings into the air. He found neonic-laden dust on flowers where bees were foraging and neonic residues inside bee hives.
Those bees, like the ones in Judy Wu-Smart’s experiments years later, were getting massive doses of neonics, enough to kill them outright. But researchers found that bees routinely brush up against much smaller doses, too. Traces of these chemicals, once taken up by a plant’s roots, can spread throughout its stalk and leaves, even into pollen or nectar—a pollinator’s lunch.
The alarm was raised, and a posse of researchers joined the chase, looking for traces of neonicotinoids in ecosystems. “The neonicotinoid research literature at this point is vast,” said Douglas. She walked over to her office computer and started clicking on browser tabs, bringing up an array of scientific papers.
There’s a study from Sweden that found that bumblebees and another species, called Mason bees, are less likely to thrive if they live near fields of oilseed rape grown from treated seed. “That’s a pattern that is quite consistent across much of the literature,” Douglas said. “Some of the strongest negative effects that we see are on bumblebees.”
These small doses of neonics generally don’t kill entire colonies of bees immediately. Instead, in these studies, bees made fewer queens or grew more slowly. Individual bees lived shorter lives.
These chemicals certainly aren’t the only thing that’s killing off pollinators and other insects, but there’s evidence that they are a significant part of the problem. Douglas was enlisted in a large research team, led by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, which analyzed the reasons for the decline of the Western bumblebee. This bee has disappeared from many places in western North America where it once was common. The researchers concluded that climate change was most to blame, but neonicotinoid use came in at number two, ahead of disappearing habitat.
Some of their impacts may be hidden. Neonicotinoids persist in the soil; they dissolve in water and migrate easily through plants and into streams. Their effects on soil-dwelling or aquatic insects are difficult to monitor. There are indications that neonicotinoids could also be harming birds or fish that depend on insects or zooplankton for food. And they’re showing up in odd places: in the meat of deer, for instance, which may be finding treated seeds lying on the ground and eating them.
The cascade of alarming reports pushed lawmakers in Europe and parts of Canada into action. In 2018, the EU passed a ban on most uses of neonicotinoids, including as seed coatings. In Canada, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec passed laws requiring farmers to get an expert’s authorization, like a doctor’s prescription, before ordering seeds coated with neonicotinoids. (These provincial laws have not been entirely successful, as seed companies have replaced neonics with other insecticides that can also harm pollinators.)
In the U.S., though, little has changed. The EPA announced that it would re-evaluate its rules on neonicotinoid pesticides, and it trimmed some of the allowable uses of neonics, such as on bulb vegetables like onions. But the primary use of neonics, as coatings on seeds, survived practically unscathed. In fact, the agency noted that it carried out its research “with the understanding of the high benefits associated with seed treatment uses.”
The company that killed Judy Wu-Smart’s bees was born in a haze of techno-enthusiasm. It was the brainchild of Dennis Langley, a flamboyant figure who grew up in small-town Kansas before finding his way into politics. He worked as a speechwriter for Senator Joe Biden, chaired the Kansas Democratic Party, founded a gas pipeline company, and became rich enough to sink $30 million into a modern castle outside Kansas City that featured, according to a 2021 article in the Kansas City Star, scuba diving tunnels, a waterfall pouring into a pond stocked with fish, and a grotto with a swimming pool.
In 2007, Langley launched a new company called E3 Biofuels on a site just south of the village of Mead, Nebraska. It was a “revolutionary step forward” in clean energy, he told visitors, a place that recycled waste into wealth. Manure from a cattle feedlot next door went into a tank called a digester which converted it into biogas. Burning the gas released heat to drive the ethanol plant, and the byproducts of making ethanol, the distillers grains, went back to the cattle as feed. In Langley’s telling, it was the next best thing to a perpetual-motion machine.
Unfortunately, the ethanol plant’s boiler exploded shortly after startup, and the ethanol business went into a slump soon afterward. E3 Biofuels declared bankruptcy. It emerged a few years later with a new name—AltEn—with Langley still in charge along with his stepson, Tanner Shaw. And they had hatched a new scheme: now they would make ethanol from a raw material that they could get almost for free—pesticide-covered corn the seed companies needed to discard.
While researching this story, I discovered something startling: The EPA actually made this possible. In 2011, without public notice or explanation, the agency changed one small sentence in the label that went on each bag of treated seeds. Previously, those labels had ruled out using discarded pesticide-coated seeds to make ethanol. The new sentence permitted it, as long as the resulting byproducts weren’t fed to livestock and contained “no measurable residues of pesticide” if they were spread on fields.
EPA officials have offered no public explanation of the change. But documents disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act offer a hint. At least one seed company—as yet unidentified—had begun shipping unsold, pesticide-coated corn to a small, farmer-owned ethanol plant called ESE Alcohol, in Leoti, Kansas. The new language legitimized this arrangement. But the request could not have come from the ethanol plant; only a company selling the seed treatments could have asked for the labels to be revised.
The change caught environmental officials around the country off guard. “Blindsided is probably the right word,” said Roy Meyer, who was New Jersey’s pesticide control officer at the time. At a meeting with EPA officials in October 2012, one state regulator asked whether “the risks [had] been evaluated fully.” Officials from Iowa raised “neo-nic/pollinator concerns.”
EPA officials told them not to worry. The agency believed that “production facilities had good procedures in place to avoid residues.”
That same year, in June, AltEn told Nebraska’s environmental regulators that it was “reviewing the feasibility” of making ethanol from discarded treated seed. Most of the people responsible for what happened next are unwilling or unable to discuss it. Langley died in 2017 after an accident while pruning trees at his estate. Other former AltEn executives, including Tanner Shaw, declined to be interviewed or failed to respond to messages. State officials in Nebraska said they couldn’t speak because of pending litigation. Companies that sent their discarded seed corn to AltEn for disposal only agreed to answer written questions.
There are documents, though, thanks to citizen activists in eastern Nebraska who pushed the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) to release records of the agency’s dealings with AltEn. Those records show that NDEE officials knew what AltEn was doing, yet seemed unable to ask obvious questions, demand answers, or take action. “It was astounding, every time I would uncover a certain document and I would think, why didn’t it stop right there?” says Leesa Zalesky, a freelance journalist who joined this effort.
In July 2015, soon after AltEn restarted its ethanol plant, the company asked NDEE to revise its operating permit to allow the plant to run a “solid waste compost facility.” Buried in its application is a note that if AltEn made ethanol from “discarded seed (with chemical treatment),” the byproducts could not be fed to animals and would need to be composted.
This was no hypothetical possibility, as was obvious to NDEE inspectors who visited the plant later that month. Their report includes a photo of two gigantic white structures that look like oversized Quonset huts. The caption notes that these were “future seed corn handling buildings.”
In these public documents, there is no evidence that NDEE officials discussed the potential hazards of handling or processing pesticide-coated seed at such scale. A few months later, when residents in the nearby village of Mead demanded a public hearing on this permit modification, NDEE didn’t mention the complications of dealing with treated seeds in the information that it distributed. Soon afterward, NDEE approved the company’s request.
A stream of trucks started rolling into AltEn, carrying discarded treated seed. Bayer, which signed a contract with AltEn in 2016, said in a statement to Switchyard that “sending the seed to AltEn’s ‘Green Recycling Program,’ as they called it, to manufacture ethanol while producing a useful soil conditioner, appeared to us at the time to be a better way to manage obsolete seed.” AltEn claimed in 2020 that it was handling 98 percent of all the discarded seed corn in the country.
The plant’s toxic feedstock became increasingly obvious to anyone driving down County Road 10 past AltEn’s enormous seed handling buildings. According to local residents, green dust from seed coatings formed a halo around the doors where trucks unloaded their cargo. There were growing piles of waste. Judy Wu-Smart, however, had little reason to drive down that road, and never saw it.
NDEE’s records, in these early years, show no concern that these chemicals might migrate and cause problems, and no demand for independent testing of the plant’s waste. As I read these documents, I was haunted by the same question that Judy Wu-Smart asked, when she first encountered AltEn’s piles of wet cake. How could this happen? What blinded Nebraska’s regulators, or made them so curiously incurious about the truckloads of brightly colored seeds arriving at AltEn, every kernel coated in chemicals that ostensibly are tightly regulated?
I still don’t actually know. But I have some ideas.
The failure of NDEE’s inspectors seems to reflect a kind of mental blind spot that has sheltered neonic-coated seeds from scrutiny for so long. When AltEn described its feedstock simply as corn seed and not pesticides, it somehow changed the mindset of regulators: The chemicals that coated each kernel didn’t come fully into view.
Regulators also seemed afflicted by tunnel vision, able to see only what fell within tightly drawn legal boundaries that defined their jobs. They inspected AltEn’s operations and cited it for failing to monitor the temperature of its compost piles, for example, and for tolerating animal burrows in the earthen walls of its waste ponds. Yet they didn’t question the single most questionable thing that the plant was doing. It’s as though they were working off a checklist, and it didn’t include dealing with mountains of pesticide-contaminated ethanol byproducts.
In the background, meanwhile, lurks the political power of corn. This crop is woven into Nebraska’s public life like oil in Texas and coal in West Virginia. Cornfields cover roughly 20 percent of the state’s land. Grain elevators tower over small towns like cathedrals in medieval European villages. Approaching Nebraska’s state capitol building, you pass a stone with this inscription: “Nebraska Agriculture Feeds the World.”
The country’s biggest seed companies were sending AltEn thousands of truckloads of corn each year. Those companies, with billions of dollars in annual sales, are pillars of Nebraska agriculture. They’re linked to farm suppliers and grain handlers throughout the state. There was little incentive to stand in their way.
Eventually, though, the problems at AltEn grew too big to ignore. In the spring of 2018, while Judy Wu-Smart was puzzling over her dying bees, AltEn was running out of space to store its contaminated byproducts. It persuaded local farmers to take distillers grains, or wet cake, and use it as fertilizer on their fields.
Paula Dyas, who lives a few miles from the plant, saw and smelled truckloads of it rumbling by her house toward nearby fields and thought at first that it was cattle manure. Then one of her dogs, a chocolate Lab named Buddy, turned up sick. “He seemed deaf, or incoherent,” Dyas recalled. “Pupils dilated. He wasn’t drinking. He wasn’t doing anything.”
Then another of her dogs, Athena, came down with the same symptoms, and Dyas remembered that she’d seen them eating the strange material that dropped from those trucks. Dyas, who has a degree in animal science, collected a sample of the wet cake and got a friend, a veterinarian, to send it to a lab. It tested positive for several fungicides—and one neonicotinoid insecticide.
Dyas called a waste management specialist at NDEE and later sent him a detailed email with the test results. In a peerless example of regulatory tunnel vision, the official told her that AltEn’s wet cake wasn’t covered by NDEE’s regulations because it “was considered a product, had nutritional value, and was being applied at proper agronomic rates.”
He forwarded Dyas’s email to Tim Creger, at the state’s Department of Agriculture, who was unimpressed. “I would need to know the quantities the lab found, not just the names of the chemicals they found, in order to determine if any minimum threshold quantities were exceeded,” Creger wrote. He also wrote directly to Dyas, suggesting that her dogs might have been struck down by naturally occurring poisons called mycotoxins in the wet cake, rather than pesticides. “Nobody seemed to want to listen to our concerns,” Dyas said.
Dyas didn’t know it at the time, but her complaint—and a cascade of complaints from other neighbors about the horrible odor of wet cake—did get things moving within NDEE. The agency asked AltEn to test its waste for pesticides, and then, when AltEn dragged its feet, it carried out its own tests, which showed extraordinarily high levels. In 2019, NDEE declared AltEn’s wet cake a solid waste and ordered the company to stop spreading it on fields and send it to an appropriate landfill instead. The company, however, demanded that the agency reconsider its order. Scott Tingelhoff, the company’s general manager, wrote to NDEE that “AltEn respectfully disagrees and believes that the currently stored distillers grain … can be safely land applied.”
The agency didn’t publicize these moves. Judy Wu-Smart didn’t know about any of it when she got in touch with state officials in the spring of 2020, looking for help solving the mystery of her dying bees.
After that revelatory email, the pace of events quickened. Wu-Smart and others spread the word about AltEn’s pesticides. The Guardian ran a story, which brought a flood of attention. In February 2021, NDEE ordered AltEn to stop adding liquid waste to its over-capacity ponds, and the plant shut down. Days later, a frozen pipe at the plant burst, unleashing a toxic flood that contaminated miles of waterways downstream from the plant and set off a storm of media coverage.
State lawmakers, caught blindsided, were furious. Nebraska’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against the remnants of AltEn for violating environmental laws. Six major seed companies that had supplied AltEn with pesticide-coated corn, including Bayer, Corteva Agriscience, and Syngenta, agreed to clean up the site, likely to forestall lawsuits that might have forced them to do it. They also sued AltEn, blaming the now-defunct company for the entire mess. That litigation continues.
A month after the AltEn spill, its aftershocks reached the small town of Leoti, Kansas. EPA inspectors showed up in the driveway of ESE Alcohol, AltEn’s forerunner. Since 1998, this plant had been quietly making ethanol from pesticide-coated seed, although it handled only about 10 percent as much as AltEn. In recent years, it had been disposing of seed for Corteva, one of the country’s biggest corn seed companies.
When the EPA tested wet cake and wastewater at ESE Alcohol, it discovered concentrations of neonicotinoids even higher than what had been found at AltEn. The company had been spreading those byproducts on local fields. The EPA ordered it to stop, and ESE Alcohol shut down.
America’s corn seed companies now send most of their discarded treated seed to facilities that burn it. According to Bayer, these incinerators destroy all the chemicals in seed treatments. California’s state regulations require treated seeds to be sent to landfills for hazardous waste.
The AltEn site was mostly quiet when I visited this past summer. Occasionally, a semi-trailer arrived to pick up a load of pesticide-coated corn that was stranded here when the plant shut down. The trucks head south to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where an incinerator that’s equipped to handle such things will burn it.
It is a first step in a cleanup that will take years. A company called NewFields is managing it. AltEn is gone. Its executives and employees abandoned the site after the plant was shut down. The NewFields engineers in charge of the operation, Donald Gunster and Bill Butler, live in Massachusetts and Florida. They drop in occasionally to see how things are going and meet local officials. It is an ordinary job for them, smaller than some of the other industrial cleanups they’ve managed across the world.
Their top priority, they told me, is getting rid of the soft, spongy wet cake. There is a small mountain of it, weighing more than 100,000 tons. To keep rain from washing it away, and to control odors, NewFields contractors deployed a truck and helicopter to spray the pile with a quick-drying stucco-like plaster called Posi-Shell.
They plan to mix the wet cake with a powdery clay, hoping to turn it into something dense and stable enough to load into trucks. If all goes well, they’ll haul it to a landfill northwest of Omaha. NewFields will run the water in AltEn’s waste ponds through large charcoal filters, capturing the pesticide residues. Those filters, along with sludge at the bottom of the ponds, will end up buried in a landfill, too.
Footing the bill for this is a group of seven major seed companies that sent discarded seed to AltEn. Apart from paying for the cleanup, though, those companies are putting as much distance as possible between themselves and this site. They describe themselves as “former AltEn customers,” not suppliers of the pesticides that now need to be cleaned up.
It is unclear how much these companies knew about what happened to their discarded corn seed after they shipped it to AltEn. In 2019, before the company’s collapse, an NDEE official named Mark Pomajzl posed this question directly in an email to AltEn’s general manager, Scott Tingelhoff, after Tingelhoff disclosed test results from four years earlier showing high levels of an insecticide in the plant’s liquid waste. “Did anybody share these results with the see[d] companies?” Pomajzl asked. Tingelhoff responded, “The seed companies are aware of the testing results. They do not have concerns.” Tingelhoff provided no evidence to back up that claim.
The companies, for their part, assert in their lawsuits that AltEn kept them in the dark about its problems, violated contracts that required it to comply with environmental laws, and failed to carry out the “green recycling” that it advertised. Corteva has not addressed its separate shipments to ESE Alcohol, which was doing much the same thing as AltEn, although on a smaller scale.
The companies would love to put the entire AltEn debacle behind them. The scandal keeps reminding the public of something they would prefer not to discuss: that pesticide-coated seeds are both ubiquitous and risky. That’s become a regulatory headache, as lawmakers in several states try to restrict neonicotinoid use.
New York’s legislature voted this past June to ban neonicotinoid coatings on corn, soybean, or wheat seeds, starting in 2027—although the bill allows state officials to lift the ban annually if they decide it would hurt farmers, or if there’s not enough non-treated seed available for sale. As I write this, the bill is waiting for Governor Kathy Hochul’s signature. Vermont’s legislature considered a similar ban in 2022, eventually passing a watered-down version calling on the state to adopt “best management practices” for using neonics.
Meanwhile, California’s powerful Department of Pesticide Regulation organized a public workshop on treated seeds and may be inching closer to restrictions on them. The EPA, for its part, says it will issue an “advanced notice of proposed rulemaking” on seed treatments. The agency hasn’t disclosed details of its proposal, but according to one spokesperson, the new rules would allow the EPA at least to gather information on exactly how much treated seed the industry is discarding. Neonicotinoids also could be restricted as part of a new effort by the EPA to protect endangered species from pesticides—although it’s likely to take years to come up with those new rules.
The seed companies are fighting these moves. Pat Miller, a top lobbyist for the American Seed Trade Association, an industry group, told a group of state pesticide regulators in 2022 that his top three priorities were “treated seed, treated seed, and treated seed.”
Appearing by Zoom, with an image of the sun setting over an endless field of corn behind him, Miller laid out his industry’s arguments. Seed treatments are valuable tools for farmers, he said. There is “no problem” that neonics are contaminating groundwater or streams, and the problem of insect-killing dust blowing from planting equipment has been “totally eliminated” by newer technologies that stop the coatings from rubbing off. In fact, Miller continued, not using seed treatments would be much worse for the environment: farmers would have to spray their crops more, possibly using five times more insecticide.
Mac Ehrhardt, the seed dealer in Minnesota, is caught in the middle. He says the evidence is convincing; neonic seed treatments are harming pollinators, and they often aren’t even helping the farmers who use them. And yet he feels compelled to sell them because farmers want them.
Unlike most seed dealers, he’s put considerable effort into offering farmers the option of ordering untreated corn seed. “I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I think farmers should be able to find seed that doesn’t have neonics on it.”
Some farmers are looking for that choice. “I should be able to make that decision, and not have it forced on me,” said Stan Keiser, a farmer whose land lies just a few miles from the AltEn plant. “I don’t think we need it. The organic guys get by without it.”
Keiser is probably the exception, though. Ehrhardt said that sales of his untreated corn seed “have been pretty terrible. It’s just not something that most conventional farmers are excited about.” He attributed this to fear of putting a crop at risk. “They have land that’s worth $10,000 to $20,000 an acre. They’ve got all these capital expenses. They have one chance to get it right in any given year.”
Judy Wu-Smart’s bees are doing better now. She pried the top off of one hive and slowly lifted a single frame out. It was covered with worker bees. This colony seemed to be making plenty of babies, although it’s not storing as much honey as a fully healthy colony might.
The area close to the AtlEn plant has turned into a giant laboratory for examining the effects of neonicotinoids on ecosystems. Bees are only the starting point. “You know, they always say bees are a canary in the coal mine,” Wu-Smart said. “They give you an indication that something is wrong. And that is true, especially in this case. It was a red flag to say, ‘Hey, let’s look more closely at what’s happening.’”
Collaborators from other disciplines have joined her. They’re studying bullfrog tadpoles, nematodes, and red-winged blackbirds. They’ve found neonic residues in the eggs of the birds.
She has freezers in her lab that are stuffed with milkweed and vetch and other plants collected at this site, waiting to be analyzed, perhaps delivering a clearer picture of how neonics migrate through the environment. “The next step is, well, at what levels? And is this safe? We don’t have that information,” she said.
The story of this site isn’t over, she said. What happened here “opens up so many conversations.” And it’s true. AltEn tells a story about everything that created it: leveraged farmers looking for security; seed companies selling it in the form of insecticides; compliant regulators; and a style of agriculture that treats the ecosystem as if it’s expendable. AltEn is done, but all the rest remains.