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Will Missouri's new coal pollution regulations hold utilities accountable?

An active coal-ash pond at the Meramec Energy Center in St. Louis County in February 2018.
File photo / Eli Chen
St. Louis Public Radio
A new law reinforces the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' authority to regulate coal-ash ponds and landfills, but environmentalists argue it's not strong enough to force utilities to address water pollution.

Just before former Gov. Eric Greitens resigned, he signed a bill to regulate coal-ash waste, a toxic byproduct of coal-fired power plants.

Coal ash, also known as coal combustion residuals, contains a number of heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, that are known to cause cancer. While some of the waste does become recycled, Ameren Missouri and other utilities dispose coal ash into landfills and ponds.

For decades, the state has not required utilities to check for contamination caused by ponds or install liners to prevent contaminants that could seep from the ponds into the surrounding environment. The bill Greitens signed directs the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to develop a plan to regulate coal-ash waste sites.

Too weak?

But environmentalists argue that the law is too weak to protect public health and the environment. They’re concerned about a part of the bill that says the state will take “risk-based corrective actions” towards cleaning up contamination.


“It allows a company like Ameren, or any other utility in Missouri, to hire a consultant to say there’s no risk with this coal-ash landfill or pond in groundwater,” said Andy Knott, a senior campaign representative at the Missouri Sierra Club. “And it would then allow Ameren to say, 'Because there’s no risk, then we don’t have to clean it up.'”

The state of Missouri has 37 ponds, several of which are located next to drinking-water sources, such as the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

The Environmental Protection Agency established a federal rule in 2015 that would require utilities to conduct groundwater monitoring and other types of oversight to prevent contamination from the ponds. However, because the EPA does not classify coal ash as hazardous waste, the federal agency is leaving it to states to decide how to regulate coal-ash waste storage. It’s also considering a number of amendments that would give states more power to oversee ponds and landfills.

The new state law requires MDNR to develop its own coal-ash waste program by the end of December.

“It’s a good thing. It allows the state to be involved; it allows the state to have a say in how these facilities operate,” said Chris Nagel, who directs MDNR’s Solid-Waste Management Program.

The law also requires that utilities pay thousands of dollars in annual fees to cover MDNR’s groundwater-monitoring costs for open and closed coal-ash sites.

The chief sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, declined to comment on the legislation. State Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, also did not answer calls for comment.

But where the state program is headed is unclear, because the EPA’s amendments have to be approved by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The risk to water resources

Some environmental experts are worried that the law won’t address contamination that the ponds have already caused to surface water and groundwater. Researchers at the Washington University Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic pointed to reports produced by Ameren that show levels of toxic metals that exceed federal drinking-water standards. For example, groundwater testing near the pond at the Rush Island Energy Center in Festus showed levels of arsenic that were more than 20 times the federal limit, according to a 2017 report.

“We have agencies out there that are supposed to be regulating to protect us, and the agencies are mostly protecting utilities from having to do any cleanup,” said law clinic director Maxine Lipeles.

The Missouri Sierra Club is also concerned about a part of the bill that allows City Utilities of Springfield to operate a landfill on top of karst topography — a type of terrain that contains fractures and caves. Environmental activists argue that it’s dangerous to place coal-ash waste in such environments where contaminants could easily come into contact with water resources. They also warn that there’s also a risk that the landfill could collapse. City Utilities declined to provide a comment.

An aerial shot of two closed coal-ash ponds at the Meramec Energy Center in St. Louis in February 2018.
Credit Ameren Missouri
Ameren Missouri plans to close 15 of its coal-ash ponds by 2023 and finished closing two at the Meramec Energy Center in south St. Louis County earlier this year. Ameren supports the new state coal-ash waste law.

However, Ameren officials are confident that whatever the state comes up with will be sufficient to regulate Missouri’s coal-ash waste sites.

“Each [pond] is different geologically and geographically,” said Craig Giesmann, the water-quality manager for Ameren Missouri. “So I don’t want to get the cart before the horse here, but at the end of the day, the professionals at MDNR are fully capable of overseeing [coal combustion residual] sites.”

The state must propose a coal-ash waste program by the end of the year.

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.