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Labadie environmentalists protest zoning change to allow coal-ash landfill

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 15, 2010 - UNION, Mo. -- Environmentalists and residents urged the Franklin County Commission on Tuesday to hold off for now on a proposed change in the zoning code, which would pave the way for Ameren Missouri to build a controversial coal-ash landfill near its Labadie coal power plant. 

Tuesday's meeting was the first public hearing on the issue in front of the County Commission. A crowd of 150-200, mostly opposed to the landfill, attended. Earlier hearings had been held before the zoning commission.

Armed with scientists and legal experts, groups like the Labadie Environmental Organization asked commissioners to form an advisory committee to study further the environmental and health risks of coal-ash disposal. They also said the commission should wait to act until the Environmental Protection Agency announces its long-planned coal-ash regulations, lest Ameren's landfill be grandfathered under current regulations.

"Do you, the governing board of Franklin County, want to get in under the wire so you have have a substandard coal-ash landfill in your county?" Maxine Lipeles, senior lecturer and co-director of Washington University's Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic, asked the commission on behalf of LEO.

The calls for an advisory committee reflect environmentalists' longtime concerns that Ameren's proposed landfill could leak in the event of a natural disaster, causing heavy metals from ash to enter the St. Louis area's drinking water and pose serious health risks.

Representatives and experts with Ameren sought to clear up what they said was misinformation about the landfill, and argued the landfill is designed to prevent leaking. Ameren spokesman Tim Fox told the Beacon, "The new facility is being designed to meet current and future EPA standards."

The comments came at a five-hour public hearing Tuesday at East Central College in Union. Some witnesses were upset that the commissioners told them to stick to the proposed change in the zoning code change and not to mention Ameren's landfill proposal. At the meeting's cutoff time, several members of the public had yet to speak. Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer said the commission planned to hold another public session in early January.

If the commission approves the zoning change, Ameren would still need a variety of government permits to build its landfill. Construction likely would not occur for another two years.

Commissioners said they could not comment to the press, at the advice of their legal counsel.

Building in a Flood Plain

The Labadie Environmental group brought in experts from as close as Washington U. and as far away as Denver to argue that the risks of toxins leaking from a landfill are real, as are the risks the toxins pose to human health.

Ameren captures about 99 percent of the ash that its coal-fired power plants would otherwise emit. About half the waste is recycled, according to the utility, but the rest must be disposed. Ameren proposed the landfill because its existing coal-ash ponds  are reaching capacity.

The landfill's proposed location is in a flood plain. Environmentalists and their experts said a landfill in a flood plain has an especially high risk of leaking toxic heavy metals such as arsenic and selenium into groundwater in the event of a flood or earthquake. They're concerned that the toxins could make their way down the Missouri River, which supplies drinking water across the St. Louis region.

"If your objective is to delay how fast those materials get into the environment, then it's counterproductive to build the facility ... in an environment where nature has got all kinds of curve balls it can throw at you," Charles Norris, hydrogeologist and president of Denver-based environmental engineering group Geo-Hydro Inc., told the Beacon after the hearing.

Ameren and landfill supporters have long responded that the landfill would have liners to prevent groundwater contamination and that the ash would be converted to a solid state for storage. "I don't understand what part of 'solid waste' everybody is not understanding," said Sandra Becker-Gurnow, a longtime Franklin County resident who favors a landfill but wants some amendments to the proposed change in the county zoning code.

Ameren and supporters have also said levees would prevent the landfill from flooding even if waters go somewhat higher than in the 1993 floods.

Lisa Bradley, a toxicologist who represented Ameren at the hearing, also testified that landfill opponents have misled people about toxins in coal ash. She said toxins exist in coal ash at levels not much higher than in soil or foods, meaning their health risks are overstated.

Norris was not convinced, however. He said Bradley was comparing "apples to elephants" because toxins in coal ash are far more mobile than those in soil.

He also was concerned that no landfill, no matter its design, is completely safe from leaks. "You can't out-design nature," he said. "You can out-design nature nine times out of 10, or 99 times out of 100, but eventually nature can give you something you're not going to be able to handle."

Even if the commission amends its landfill code to allow Ameren's landfill to go forward, environmentalists said they don't want a landfill that falls below EPA's eventual standards. If Ameren gets approval on the landfill before EPA enacts its regulations, then the landfill would be grandfathered under existing standards. Ameren spokesman Tim Fox, however, said Ameren's landfill would meet future EPA regulations.

EPA Looking at Coal Ash

EPA is proposing two different options for regulating utilities' and power plants' coal waste under existing law. Up until now, coal ash has been exempt. One option would regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, a 1976 federal law. The other plan would regulate coal ash as a nonhazardous waste under the law's Subtitle D.

"We anticipate that whether the EPA rules this material 'hazardous' or not, that the dry storage facility we are proposing will be the way ash has to be handled in the future," Fox said in a statement.

Environmentalists, including LEO, prefer Subtitle C not only because it would classify coal ash as a hazardous waste but also because the federal government could enforce the regulation if states decided not to adopt the new standards.

Under Subtitle D, the federal government couldn't enforce its regulations if states were to choose not to adopt them. Enforcement would be left to citizen suits and advocacy groups, said Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at Earthjustice, an Oakland, Calif., environmental public-interest group.

"It leaves it to environmental groups and public-interest groups to do the enforcement, which is untenable and unrealistic and will never happen because citizens will not have access to all the information, won't have access to all the resources to act as regulators or enforcement agencies," Evans said.

LEO asked its members to push Subtitle C by attending and testifying at EPA hearings over the summer on the proposed regulation.

Puneet Kollipara, a Washington University student, is a freelance writer and a former intern at the Beacon.