- Associated Press - Monday, March 8, 2021

Lincoln Journal Star. March 5, 2021.

Editorial: Lawsuit was imperative to force change at Mead plant

A stockpile of about 84,000 tons of distiller’s grain that hadn’t been disposed of, an emergency order to cease wastewater discharge, a leak that released waste materials 4 miles — the scope of the problems at the AltEn Ethanol plant near Mead is staggering.



And those are the most recent findings from the ongoing environmental disaster cited in a 97-page complaint filed against the Kansas-based company in Saunders County District Court by the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office — decisive, desperately needed action.

The complaint is the latest effort to force the recalcitrant company to end the generation of pollutants from the troubled ethanol plant and clean up the land and water contaminated by pesticides from the treated seed corn used there.

The pesticides became infused in the distiller’s grain, an end result of the ethanol-creation process, as well as being captured in the plant’s wastewater runoff and sold for use as treatment on area farmland.

The Environmental Protection Agency found its application resulted in concentrations of pesticides on the land that far exceeded its registered safe application rates.

Those findings came late last year. But AltEn has been under scrutiny since 2015, when the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy discovered it was using the pesticide-treated seed corn as its feedstock rather than normal field corn.

The company, however, consistently resisted government efforts to get it to control and clean up its operations, with slow or no responses to orders and inquiries, even as area landowners found animals sick and dying from the pollution.

The massive scale of the complaint, which includes 18 causes of action, is more like an antitrust lawsuit filed against a tech firm than any other action that Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson has taken to enforce the state’s environmental laws.

“What’s driving this is just a poorly, poorly run corporation that failed to recognize the authority of the state and comply with our environmental standards,” Peterson said. “That’s why it’s so extensive.”

The complaint’s single heartening finding is that AltEn was the only ethanol plant in Nebraska and one of the two plants in the country using treated seed corn as an ethanol feedstock.

The AltEn plant is shut down for the foreseeable future, and it is likely the Legislature will soon pass Sen. Bruce Bostelman’s bill to prohibit the use of treated corn in fuel production if the byproduct is deemed unsafe for livestock consumption or land application.

That should eliminate any chance that AltEn, or any other ethanol plant, will repeat pesticide pollution. And the court case should require the company to properly dispose of the distiller’s grain and clean up the lagoons and water pollution before it can be given an opportunity to operate again.

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Omaha World-Herald. March 5, 2021.

Editorial: No excuse for McDermott’s hurtful ‘plantation’ comment - but it can be a teaching moment

We all agree that Creighton University basketball coach Greg McDermott stumbled Saturday when he told players after a loss, “I need everyone to stay on the plantation. I can’t have anyone leave the plantation.”

He said in a statement that he immediately recognized that the term was improper and has apologized to players, parents, staffers and administrators for what he called his “terribly inappropriate analogy.”

Creighton moved Thursday evening to suspend McDermott. “Further sanctions remain under consideration, not all of which will be shared publicly,” the university said.

Some people, sick of every misdeed being swept up in cancel culture, might be tempted to quickly excuse this as a slip of the tongue made out of insensitivity but not malice.

That might be true, but we must weigh how this landed on Black people and Black student-athletes specifically, who are central to the success of a college sport that they dominate but do not share significantly in the massive and growing revenue.

“You cannot overstate the power of the word ‘plantation,’” Preston Love Jr., the North Omaha activist, told The World-Herald’s Dirk Chatelain. “For our race, it’s a euphemism for the dark days.”

Southern plantations have often been prettied up in popular culture to portray a genteel lifestyle with sometimes benevolent owners. That’s a horrifying distortion. Plantations were abusive prisons where slaves, often shackled, whipped and raped, lived in hovels, their families torn apart.

We’re sure that McDermott didn’t want to say his program is like a plantation.

His clumsy and hurtful remarks are an example of how White people sometimes display their unconscious bias and insensitivity. McDermott grew up in Cascade, Iowa, which today is 96% White. Growing up in the ’70s in many predominantly White locales, people heard racist comments often go unchallenged, seldom met people of color and got little in the way of useful racial sensitivity education. So the excuse for thoughtless, racially charged comments even decades later often is, basically, that White folk don’t know better.

Of course, that’s no excuse for any of us. That’s especially true for McDermott, whose career path as a coach (and therefore an educator) has provided him with plenty of experience with people of color from a range of backgrounds. He’s a leader and an example in the community.

It is good that this is public. McDermott and Creighton reacted promptly, in contrast to other universities, such as the Iowa football program, where student-athletes stayed mostly silent for years about discrimination and insensitivity, and were emboldened to speak out amid last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. It’s encouraging for our progress to see that last summer’s painful moments have retained some impact these months later.

So, as World-Herald sports columnist Tom Shatel asked, what happens now?

In addition to Creighton’s suspension, the Big East reprimanded McDermott, who said in a radio interview that he had offered to resign if the players wanted.

He has wounded the university and added difficulty to his future recruiting efforts.

Creighton leadership must decide if it will work with the coach to heal that wound.

It does not appear that McDermott has a pattern of such behavior. Josh Dotzler, a Bluejay from 2005-09 whose family operates a nonprofit aimed at strengthening Omaha’s inner city, condemned the comments in writing for The World-Herald, but added that “I have also witnessed his heart to make Omaha a better place.”

In our politically charged atmosphere, some purists will settle for nothing less than the coach’s ouster, while others will shrug off his comments as a small slip.

It is clearly more than a harmless lapse. But we hope for a moment of grace in which Creighton, McDermott and his players find a middle ground. The school vowed Thursday to make it an “opportunity for growth and learning.” It can be that for all of us.

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Grand Island Independent. March 4, 2021.

Editorial: Free speech vital for student journalists

A bill being considered by the Nebraska Legislature Judiciary Committee, LB88, seeks to protect free speech rights of student journalists and student media advisers.

Currently, it is up to individual school districts how much autonomy student publications and their advisers have in reporting and in providing editorial comment. Many districts have policies that allow principals to review material before it’s published.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, originally was proposed in 2018. But it has enhanced relevance this year because of a situation at Westside High School in Omaha. The school previously didn’t have prior review of its student publications’ content, but last summer the administration set a policy requiring that student content regarding anything controversial, such as defunding the police, the presidential election and race relations, be submitted to the administration for review before publication. Student journalists were asked to “exercise caution” in how they select topics and write articles and commentary.

A Westside journalism teacher, Jerred Zegelis, has resigned because of this action. He had been teaching there and advising student publications for almost eight years and during that time, his students consistently have won state and national journalism awards. They won the Class A Team Sweepstakes in the state journalism competition in 2019 and 2020 and also have won Sweepstakes awards in the Nebraska Press Women High School Communications Contest.

Morfeld’s bill would classify public high school and college publications as “public forums,” enhancing their First Amendment protections. Current school district policies, such as Westside’s, state that student publications aren’t public forums, so they would be nullified if Morfeld’s bill is passed and signed into law.

The bill wouldn’t say anything goes with student journalism. There are limits to free speech. Students would need to adhere to journalistic ethical standards, as they should be taught to do anyway, and they would not be protected if they published libelous or slanderous content, invaded someone’s privacy or violated federal or state laws.

But if the school has a good journalism teacher as the adviser, all of that review should be done anyway, just as the editor of a professional publication ensures that its staff members don’t break these standards.

“If we’re engaging in censorship and prior review unnecessarily, then we’re really discouraging an entire generation of future journalists from even being a part of the process,” Morfeld told the Omaha World-Herald recently.

Will Eikenbary, a Westside student who helps oversee the school’s student publications, testified before the Legislature Judiciary Committee in favor of the bill.

Eikenbary said since the school’s policy was instituted, students have been dismissing ideas for stories, thinking even a particular topic wouldn’t make it through a review, no matter how they wrote the article.

“It stifles creativity,” he said.

When a school district hires a journalism teacher and puts that teacher in charge of the high school newspaper or yearbook, a lot of confidence is being placed in that teacher. If the teacher believes something a student has written is questionable, he or she is free to reject it or seek the principal’s opinion. But administrative review shouldn’t be required as a matter of course.

LB88 has been supported by the Nebraska State Education Association, ACLU of Nebraska and Nebraska press and broadcast associations.

Students are just learning to be journalists. They need supervision. But they should be encouraged to look at the world around them with a critical eye and use their creativity. Never has it been more important for our public schools to give their students the instruction and the freedom they need to learn to take on jobs in journalism.

“We believe it is critical for student journalists to have the freedom to write about important, even controversial, issues that affect their communities,” the Nebraska Press Women Board of Directors said in a letter to committee members supporting the bill. “And it is equally important for their fellow students to have access to such uncensored information as part of the essential process of learning how to be critical thinkers and developing media literacy skills.”

The Judiciary Committee should advance Morfeld’s bill to the floor for full consideration by the Legislature. Don’t quash free speech before it’s given full consideration.

END

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