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Environmental Advocates Call On State Officials To Overhaul Labadie Power Plant Permit

The Missouri DNR is now considering an updated five-year operating permit for the Labadie Energy Center, the state's largest coal-fired power plant.
Gewel Maker
The Missouri DNR is now considering an updated five-year operating permit for the Labadie Energy Center, the state's largest coal-fired power plant.

A coalition of Franklin County residents and environmental groups wants Missouri officials to tighten permitting restrictions on the state’s largest coal-fired power plant.

Environmental advocates say water used for cooling Ameren’s Labadie Energy Center, along with toxic contaminants leaching from coal ash ponds, pose a risk to wildlife and the surrounding area. As state officials prepare to renew the power plant’s operating permit for another five years, opponents maintain the proposed draft violates federal law and must be rewritten.

The Labadie power plant relies on water drawn from the Missouri River to cool its equipment— discharging more than 1 million gallons of hot water per minute back into the river, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The rules governing the hot water releases were loosened last fall, after Ameren received approval from the state’s Clean Water Commission to exceed the previous 90 degree temperature limit under certain conditions.

Monitoring data reported to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources show the water discharged from the Labadie plant exceeded 105 degrees for more than three consecutive weeks last July, months before the commission approved the rule change.

“I’ve floated past the location where the water is discharged and stuck my hand in that water; I know how hot it is,” said Patricia Schuba, president of the Labadie Environmental Organization, a grassroots group of concerned residents. “It would seem to me that DNR would be the one going to bat to say, ‘This system needs to be upgraded.’ But they’re not doing that.”

DNR is now considering an updated five-year operating permit for the Labadie plant, a federally mandated process that limits the type of pollutants that can be released and sets monitoring requirements.

Nearly 20 people testified against the draft permit during a public hearing Thursday night, including Wallis Warren, a former member of the Clean Water Commission and Franklin County resident.

Rather than supporting Ameren’s “continuous weakening of the permit requirements,” DNR should require the utility to update its cooling system to the best available technology, Warren said. “I do not know of any respected company, organization or agency that operates on what is the least they have to do, but rather what is the best they can do,” she said.

But Ameren officials say that the Labadie plant is in full compliance with state and federal laws, and that their scientists have done extensive research to ensure that hot water discharged from the plant is not harming fish or other river-dwelling organisms.

“The conclusion was that was exactly the case: It was not having any effect on these communities,” said Craig Giesmann, environmental services manager for Ameren. “Multiple studies over many years by industry professionals have said that Labadie’s facility is not having an adverse effect on human health or the environment.”

Still, the hot water discharged into the Missouri River is only part of the concern for environmental advocates and local residents.

The Labadie plant has two unlined pits of coal ash — byproducts of coal combustion that contain arsenic, boron and other cancer-causing compounds. A 2019 analysis from the Washington University Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic found the groundwater near the coal ash ponds at the Labadie plant shows “significant contamination,” including arsenic concentrations 3.5 times the federal drinking water standard.

Once in the groundwater, these toxins flow directly into the Missouri River, said Tara Rocque, assistant director of the law clinic.

“Ameren’s discharge of toxins from its coal ash ponds are governed by the Clean Water Act and must be regulated,” Rocque said during Thursday’s public hearing, citing a recent Supreme Court ruling.

In a statement emailed to St. Louis Public Radio, a spokesperson for DNR said it is “neither necessary, appropriate, nor lawful” for the department to include specific requirements related to hazardous waste management in Ameren’s operating permit for the Labadie plant.

The spokesperson added that “community members who claim that this permit violates the Clean Water Act by not addressing groundwater contamination from coal ash ponds are mistaken.”

Ameren Missouri is currently capping the Labadie ash ponds with high-density plastic covers, Giesmann said, but the utility does not plan to remove the waste from the site.

“For many, many years in the future, we expect to be closely watching and monitoring the groundwater around those ash basins,” Giesmann said.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Clarification: The Labadie Energy Center discharges heated water into the Missouri River. A previous version of this story identified it as wastewater.

Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award.