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Critics of Missouri’s regional haze plan want the federal government to throw it out

The Labadie Energy Center in Labadie, MO on April 6, 2022. The coal fired power plant is owned by Ameren.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
The Labadie Energy Center in Labadie on April 6, 2022. The coal-fired power plant, owned by Ameren, is one of the top emitters of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which both contribute to regional haze.

Environmental organizers and two of Missouri’s congressional representatives want the federal government to step in and regulate regional haze coming from the state.

Reps. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, and Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, released a letter last month calling for the Environmental Protection Agency to reject Missouri’s State Implementation Plan for regional haze and implement their own.

“The Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) State Implementation Plan does not make any meaningful attempts to reduce the pollution that causes haze, thus making it ineffective and essentially useless,” the representatives wrote.

It’s a position shared by environmental advocates, including Jenn DeRose, the Beyond Coal Campaign representative in Missouri for Sierra Club. The New Madrid Power Plant, Thomas Hill Energy Center and Labadie Energy Center are among the top national emitters of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, which both contribute to regional haze, she said.

“This is concerning because it limits the visibility in national parks, which is a problem, we all want to enjoy our beautiful landscapes,” DeRose said.

The regional haze rule from the EPA tasks states and federal agencies with working together and devising plans to improve the air quality in the country’s national parks. Haze from Missouri can reach thousands of miles to the east in places like the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia, DeRose said.

“These are places that don’t get to have a say, they can’t protect themselves from our pollution,” she said. “And we’re being irresponsible poor neighbors by not reigning in the pollution that is causing problems at these parks that are national treasures.”

DeRose stresses this issue is about much more than just the natural landscape.

“The same pollution that causes haze also causes all sorts of health issues, exacerbating conditions that have to do with respiratory illnesses like asthma,” she said.

The St. Louis region is known to have poor air quality, with health conditions caused by it disproportionately affecting communities of color, DeRose said. It’s something Beth Guztler has seen regularly in her work as Metropolitan Congregations United’s lead environmental justice organizer.

“There’s such a high rate of allergy issues and asthma issues that for the citizens and the residents that I have spoken to, that is a health concern, not just the visual haze,” she said.

In 2021, a coalition of churches in parts of St. Louis with high levels of pollution installed air quality monitors to measure particulate matter (PM 2.5), which can form from sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Gutzler said the data from those monitors are pushing her and others at her organization to question if the standards for particulate matter pollution are where they should be.

“What’s going on in reference to even our monitoring compared to our standards is not what our general public is experiencing,” she said. “We have had, according to our current standards, on-target air quality days for PM 2.5.”

Missouri regulators argue its plan to address regional haze, adopted by the state’s Air Conservation Commission last August, meets the federal rule’s progress requirements and point to consent agreements the state has signed with a half-dozen power plants that go into effect after EPA approves of its plan.

“The consent agreements lock in thousands of tons per year of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emission reductions already achieved in practice through control measures already implemented at the facilities, but that are not currently enforceable,” said Connie Patterson, DNR’s director of communications in a statement.

Patterson added some of this equipment has not been operated continuously in recent years because of a lack of enforceable requirements and the cost of running such control equipment.

“The department projects that these new nitrogen oxides control requirements will achieve more than 10,000 tons per year of new, actual nitrogen oxides emission reductions compared to actual emission levels at these facilities in 2020 and 2021,” she said.

DeRose, with the Sierra Club, doesn’t buy it.

“DNR is a lapdog, not a watchdog, when it comes to protecting Missourians from the state’s largest polluters,” she said. “It’s all just paper reductions, to make it look like they’re reducing emissions.”

DeRose adds the consent agreements don’t mention enforceable limits on pollution coming from the listed coal-fired power plants.

Pollution from coal-fired power plants in Missouri is pronounced, but there are new programs from the Inflation Reduction Act to help utilities move away from coal and strengthen grid reliability, she explained.

“There’s a ton of money sitting on the table right now for these utilities to add new renewable energy to their portfolio and reduce their reliance on coal, which causes pollution and the source of all this haze,” DeRose said.

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.