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Missouri To Regulate Coal Ash Ponds For The First Time

An aerial shot of one closed and one partially closed coal ash pond at the Meramec Energy Center in St. Louis in February 2018.
Ameren Missouri
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources released its plan last week for regulating ponds and landfills where utilities dump toxic coal ash waste.

Coal-fired power plants that dump toxic waste in ponds could be required to monitor groundwater near the ponds and landfills under a plan released by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Under the plan released this month, utility companies would have to test every six months for harmful toxins that are typically found in coal ash waste, such as arsenic and mercury.

In recent years, Missouri utilities have closed or have announced that they will soon close many of their coal ash ponds. The utility can choose one of two methods: closing the pond by removing all of the waste or by leaving and capping the waste in place.

Missouri has 36 coal ash ponds, according to MDNR. Many have existed since the 1970s and 1980s and do not have liners that keep contaminants from seeping out into the environment.

If MDNR finds that a pond the utility closed by the latter method is leaking contaminants into the groundwater that exceed state drinking-water standards, the state agency could order the utility to excavate the waste entirely under its proposal.

“Corrective measures could be a wide range of different things,” said Chris Nagel, MDNR’s solid waste director. “Everything from clean closure to various methods of trying to control releases to groundwater.”

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency established its rule for coal ash ponds and landfills. It has required utilities across the country to test groundwater and publish publicly accessible results online. However, since coal ash waste is not classified as “hazardous waste,” states like Missouri are responsible for overseeing disposal sites.

The Sierra Club and the Labadie Environmental Organization are concerned that the state’s regulations won’t be strong to address groundwater contamination. Since Ameren Missouri’s ponds are located near the Missouri and Mississippi River, they also fear that floods could cause coal ash from the ponds to spill into local waterways.

Last fall, floodwaters caused by Hurricane Florence breached a coal ash pond in Wilmington, North Carolina.

For capped coal ash ponds already located near waterways, there isn’t much that can be done, Nagel said. Power plants can only address what happens after a flood.

If there was a flood, they would have to go back after the flood receded, do inspections and verify the cover is still intact,” Nagel said.

The Missouri Energy Development Association, which represents the interests of the state’s utilities, supports the draft regulations. Trey Davis, president of MEDA, wrote to Chris Nagel on Feb. 1, urging the state agency to hasten the rulemaking process.

After MDNR submits its proposal to EPA for approval, Nagel expects the regulations to become effective on Sept. 30. The state could change them, if a federal lawsuit environmental groups filedagainst the EPA’s proposal to dismantle its coal ash disposal regulations is successful.

“We do anticipate that there’s going to likely have to be a revised version of the state regulations in order to follow along with wherever the federal rule ends up being finalized,” Nagel said.

MDNR will take public feedback until March 28. The state agency has also scheduled an informal listening post on Feb. 19 and a formal public hearing on March 21 in Jefferson City.

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