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Data Shows Massive Pits Of Coal Waste From Missouri Utilities Polluted Groundwater

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
Washington University's analysis of data from Missouri utility companies shows high levels of contamination near ponds power plants use to dump waste from coal combustion. Missouri solid-waste officials expect to start regulating them this fall.

About 11 years ago, a small group of residents in Labadie learned that the power plant in their town owned massive pits of toxic waste known as coal ash ponds.

They discovered that the Labadie Energy Center — Ameren Missouri’s largest coal-fired power plant — has two basins packed with byproducts from coal combustion. The waste includes toxic, cancer-causing chemicals such as arsenic, mercury and lead.

For more than 50 years, utility companies have filled largely unlined coal ash ponds with harmful waste. But the state has never regulated them or required their owners to test groundwater nearby for contamination. A Washington University data analysis recently found high levels of groundwater contamination near the ponds.

“We didn’t want that going into the water, in the floodplain,” said Janet Dittrich, a Labadie resident who was among those who researched the ponds. “I mean, how ridiculous!”

Some of the residents who looked into the ponds years ago became members of the Labadie Environmental Organization, which raises awareness of environmental issues related to the Labadie Energy Center. The group and other St. Louis-area environmental activists are worried that the state’s recently proposed rules for coal ash waste storage won’t protect their local water resources.

Since several of the ponds are located near the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, residents near power plants are concerned about ponds becoming flooded, like when Hurricane Florence flooded two coal ash ponds at a power plant in Wilmington, North Carolina, last fall.

Others who live closer to the plants and rely on well water also wonder if they should be worried about groundwater contamination coming in contact with their wells.

"Wherever we have data, there's contamination"

The Environmental Protection Agency began regulating coal ash waste disposal in October 2015 and required utilities to annually test groundwater near ponds that are actively receiving waste. Companies were also required to publish the test findings online.

The Washington University Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic analyzed the data and found that groundwater near many active ponds show levels of arsenic, boron and other disease-causing chemicals that exceed state and federal drinking-water standards.

“Wherever we have data, there is contamination,” said Maxine Lipeles, director of the law clinic. “The principal risk is through groundwater contamination, which can then spread through the groundwater and can also spread from the groundwater into surface water.”

Maxine Lipeles, director of the Washington University Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Maxine Lipeles, director of the Washington University Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic, represents the Missouri Sierra Club and the Labadie Environmental Organization. She and researchers at WashU analyzed groundwater monitoring data taken near Missouri coal ash ponds that are receiving waste.

For example, lawyers found that groundwater tested near Ameren’s Rush Island Energy Center in Festus showed arsenic levels that are 25 times the federal standard. Near Associated Electric Cooperative’s New Madrid plant, tests detected levels of boron — which can damage multiple human organs — at 10 times above the state groundwater standard.

Officials with Empire District and the Associated Electric Cooperative said in statements that they are complying with the federal coal ash rule. Kansas City Power and Light officials say that more studies are needed to confirm the link between excessive contaminant levels and ponds at their Montrose and Sibley plants.

“There’s no conclusive data yet,” said Gina Penzig, a spokesperson for KCP&L. “It’s something that we continue to study in compliance with EPA and any applicable Missouri rules.”

Ameren’s reports conclude that high levels of potentially harmful chemicals in area groundwater do not pose a risk to human health and the environment.

“We intend to have reports that come out that discuss those and put those in context, as opposed to just taking numbers right out of a particular report,” said Craig Giesmann, Ameren Missouri’s water-quality manager. “Right now, all the reports we have show no impacts to drinking water wells, residential wells or the surface.”

Ameren has not tested residential wells. The utility determined that the ponds pose no risk to drinking-water sources based on its tests from wells that the company installed near the Rush Island and Labadie plants, Giesmann said.


Coal-fired power plants in other states also have reported significant groundwater contamination near their coal ash ponds. A report from the environmental law group Earthjustice listed dozens of power plants where levels of arsenic, cobalt and lead have exceeded state or federal groundwater limits.

Coal ash waste likely has contaminated more groundwater than what the data shows, Lipeles said. The EPA will begin requesting groundwater data for ponds that are technically open but not receiving waste later this year. The federal rule exempts closed ponds from groundwater testing.

Since the EPA established its coal ash rule in 2015, Missouri utility companies have planned to close their coal ash ponds. Companies, such as Ameren Missouri, claim that’s because the technology at their facilities have advanced and no longer require water to process coal, thus eliminating the need for ponds.

An aerial shot of one closed and one partially closed coal ash pond at the Meramec Energy Center in St. Louis in February 2018.
Credit Ameren Missouri
Ameren Missouri is closing all of its coal ash ponds by 2023. The company chose to close the ponds by leaving the waste in place and some will receive retrofitted liners. So far, only one at the Meramec Energy Center in south St. Louis County has been fully closed.

However, many ponds in Missouri, including all of Ameren’s, have failed a key requirement in the federal rule: The pond must be built at least five feet above the top of the aquifer that’s closest to the surface. According to federal regulations, the company must close the pond if it fails to meet all of the location requirements.

Under the EPA’s rule, companies can close the pond by digging up the waste and taking it to another site for disposal or capping the ponds with the waste in place. Ameren Missouri, Associated Electric Cooperative, the city of Sikeston, Liberty Utilities Empire District and Independence Power and Light have chosen the latter method for some or all of their facilities.

At a media briefing Ameren Missouri held last year to announce that it was capping all of 15 of its coal ash ponds in Missouri, Giesmann said removing the waste would be difficult logistically.

“A lot of these ash ponds are very deep, and when we looked at it in terms of digging it up and taking it somewhere else, it presents a lot of challenges and would take years and years to complete,” Giesmann said.

The Missouri Sierra Club and the Labadie Environmental Organization, groups that Lipeles represents, are opposed to closing the ponds without removing the waste. Many ponds do not have liners that prevent contact with groundwater.

“As long as that ash is there, you’re going to have groundwater contamination indefinitely,” Lipeles said.

Will Missouri's coal ash waste regulations be strong enough?

Just before resigning from office, former Gov. Eric Greitens signed a bill to give the Missouri Department of Natural Resources the ability to set state regulations for coal ash ponds and landfills. The DNR completed a draft at the end of 2018 and posted it to the state register at the beginning of this month. After considering feedback from the public, the DNR will draft a final plan and submit it to EPA for approval.

The state’s proposal requires that utility companies test groundwater near ponds twice a year and stipulates utilities should take actions to address contamination if levels of harmful chemicals exceed state drinking-water standards.

“Obviously you don’t typically drink shallow groundwater, but in this case, the limits are the drinking-water standards, so [the proposed regulations are] fairly protective,” said Chris Nagel, solid-waste director for the Missouri DNR.

State officials could require utilities to undertake a variety of measures to clean up groundwater contamination, including digging up the waste, Nagel said.

Environmentalists claim the state’s proposal isn’t strong enough to protect human health and the environment. The vague language in the draft regulations allow companies to easily argue that they do not have to clean up groundwater contamination, said Lipeles.

“If you can show that people are not drinking the contaminated groundwater — and you don't expect people to be drinking them in the future — and the groundwater isn't connected to a drinking water supply, then you don't have to clean it up,” Lipeles said.

Environmental activist Patricia Schuba stands in front of the Labadie Energy Center.
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Patricia Schuba, local resident and founder of the Labadie Environmental Organization, has tried to raise awareness about the risks that coal ash ponds could pose to human health and the environment.

The proposed regulations are weaker than the federal rule and state regulations for coal ash landfills, she said. The state currently requires utilities that store waste in landfills to test for long list of harmful chemicals in nearby groundwater. The state’s proposal would instead only require that company officials first test a short list of contaminants and then test for a longer list if results indicate excessive levels. The short list does not include arsenic, lithium or radium.

Under the state’s proposal, utilities are not required to publish groundwater-monitoring data online for public access. Missouri DNR officials plan to propose to EPA that the state use its own rules instead of relying on the federal rule. If utilities are not explicitly mandated to post the groundwater-monitoring results online, then the public would not be aware of contamination that could be revealed from tests done in the future, Lipeles said.

The Missouri Energy Development Association, which represents the state’s utility companies, wrote to Nagel earlier this month to express support for the state’s proposed regulations.

“I know there are some out there who have argued that they don’t believe they are as protective [as federal regulations]. We believe that’s simply unfounded,” said Trey Davis, president of MEDA.

The public comment period for the state’s proposal ends on March 28, after a public hearing in Jefferson City on March 21. Nagel expects the state’s regulations to be effective at the end of September.

However, the federal rule could change if Earthjustice, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups win a lawsuit against the EPA over coal ash regulations. It’s possible that the state’s rules could be revised if that happens, Nagel said.

Should residents worry about the ponds?

People who live near coal-fired power plants in Missouri are generally unaware of the ponds. Labadie residents are an exception, in part, because of Labadie Environmental Organization founder Patricia Schuba’s efforts to raise awareness about coal ash waste.

“I was shocked when I found out there’s very little oversight [of coal ash ponds],” said Schuba, who was born and raised in Labadie. “To local people, that became frightening, and we — over all these decades of living here — assumed that everything was protected, including the groundwater.”

Janet Dittrich and other LEO members want to see the waste at Labadie Energy Center’s ponds dug up and taken away. They’re worried that flooding from the nearby Missouri River could spread contamination to surface waters, especially since floods from the river have become more frequent in recent years and will likely increase due to climate change.

If the utilities don’t clean up the polluted groundwater, the group could potentially sue Ameren, Schuba said.

Many residents along Highway T in Labadie depend on well water because their locations are too remote to access Franklin County’s water supply. Nancy Campbell, 64, and her mother Ruth Campbell, 91, live along the winding rural road. They aren’t certain they should be worried about contaminated groundwater coming in contact with their well.

Labadie residents Ruth and Nancy Campbell at their backyard deck.
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Nancy Campbell and her mother, Ruth Campbell, want Ameren Missouri to dig up and take away the waste in coal ash ponds. But they aren't certain whether to be worried about groundwater contamination potentially polluting the well they use for drinking water.

Nancy Campbell said her mother also is trying to sell some of her property, and they hope the pollution does not make that difficult.

“Our water hasn’t been tested, and as far as we know, everything is cool, everything’s wonderful,” Campbell said. “It’s like, 'Do we worry? Do we not worry?'”

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