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Missouri DNR Pulls Controversial Plan To Regulate Coal Ash Ponds And Landfills

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
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources decided not to move forward with a plan it proposed this year to regulate coal ash ponds and landfills. Missouri has three dozen coal ash ponds that were unregulated until the 2015 federal coal ash rule.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has scrapped its proposal to regulate disposal sites for coal-fired power plants, a plan that environmentalists and federal regulators heavily criticized.

The plan would have required utilities monitor groundwater and clean up contamination near ponds and landfills that store byproducts of coal combustion, which contain toxic chemicals like mercury, arsenic and lead. Environmental groups, residents near power plants and the Environmental Protection agency wrote letters to the state agency earlier this year saying that the plan won’t address groundwater contamination.

DNR officials chose not to submit the proposed regulations to the Environmental Protection Agency because the federal agency did not give clear guidance on enforcing cleanup at the sites, said Chris Nagel, DNR’s solid waste director.

“It doesn’t spell out what types of corrective measures you have to use and also doesn’t spell out how fast a corrective measure has to return a facility back to compliance,” Nagel said.

The federal coal ash rule, developed during the Obama administration, may also change due to an ongoing lawsuit from environmental groups. The strong possibility that the federal coal ash rule will be amended also played a role in DNR’s decision to not move forward with its plan, Nagel said.

Many of Missouri’s coal ash ponds are unlined and near major bodies of water. Ameren Missouri’s ponds are located along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

Several were built in the 1970s and 1980s. Lawyers and researchers at the Washington University Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic found this year that there were excessive levels of toxic chemicals near every active pond, according to the utilities own data.

Environmentalists are concerned that groundwater contamination could affect the quality of wells that some nearby rural residents use. Many residents near Ameren’s Labadie Energy Center use well water. The DNR’s proposal was too weak to effectively address groundwater concerns, said Patricia Schuba, president of the Labadie Environmental Organization.

“It was so generic it was dangerous to the water and to people so we’re glad it didn’t go any further,” Schuba said. “We would like to continue the dialogue with the state regulators and maybe take another run at writing something better.”

The Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to Missouri DNR officials in March that pointed out multiple weaknesses in the state’s proposal. Some of the provisions allow the state agency to waive requirements for utility companies to clean up groundwater contamination or even monitor groundwater for toxic chemicals if they can show that it doesn’t affect drinking-water supplies or harm the environment.

Ameren Missouri has 15 ponds for its four power plants, the most of any utility in the state. The company last week held a series community meetings about its plans to close its coal ash ponds, which consist of capping the ponds without removing the waste. The utility is taking feedback on its closure plans until June 7.

Utility companies in Missouri supported the DNR’s proposal. At a public hearing about the plan this year, Missouri Energy Development Association president Trey Davis said that the plan was just as strong as the federal coal ash rule. Davis did not respond to calls for comment about the withdrawn regulations.

The Missouri DNR intends to draw up another plan in the future, but what will happen with the federal coal ash rule remains uncertain, Nagel said. The EPA is in the process of rolling back coal ash regulations in several ways, including allowing utilities to extend the lives of their disposal ponds.

However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled last August that that provisions in the Obama-era rule needed to be stronger to address contamination. It ordered the agency to stop power plants unlined and clay-lined ponds from receiving waste.

“EPA may politically want to weaken the rules but legally, they have to strengthen them,” said Maxine Lipeles, director of the Washington University interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic.

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

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