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New coal ash report alleges risk to St. Louis drinking water

Ameren's 2,400-megawatt plant near Labadie, Missouri, is the state's largest coal-fired power plant. It produces an average of 550,000 tons of coal ash each year.
Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Ameren's 2,400-megawatt plant near Labadie, Missouri, is the state's largest coal-fired power plant. It produces an average of 550,000 tons of coal ash each year.

A new report by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project alleges that nearly every coal plant in the United States contaminates surrounding groundwater — and therefore drinking and recreational water — with unsafe levels of hazardous toxins.

The report, “Poisonous Coverup: The Widespread Failure of the Power Industry to Clean Up Coal Ash Dumps,” also claims that utility companies are evading a 2015 federal regulation called the Coal Ash Rule, or the Coal Combustion Residuals Rule.

“About half of them are basically hiding the evidence of contamination and pretending it's not there,” said Abel Russ, the co-author of “Poisonous Coverup” and senior attorney of the Environmental Integrity Project.

Of the 265 power plants the report says are contaminated, 12 are in Missouri, with four in the St. Louis region: Sioux Energy, Labadie Power Station, Meramec Energy Center and Rush Island Energy Center.

Bob Menees, staff attorney for Great Rivers Environmental Law Center in St. Louis, noted that because the Coal Ash Rule was the first federal regulation on coal ash disposal, noncompliance by utility companies could set a dangerous precedent.

“During the most important time of the [Coal Combustion Residuals Rule] rule, 2016 to 2020, I think that the utilities understood that they weren't going to get any enforcement or any pushback from the federal government,” Menees said. He added that since then, pollution has gotten substantially worse.

However, there have been some successful initiatives to clean up the toxic waste, led by municipalities like Columbia, Missouri.

“In my mind … the only complete cleanup of a site is to remove the ash from the site, recycle it, or put it in a lined landfill away from water and people,” said Patricia Schuba, president of the board of Labadie Environmental Organization. Schuba sees the situation in Columbia as an example of how the public can influence productive change.

Coal ash sites located in the St. Louis area are controlled by Ameren Missouri. Rather than entirely removing the ash from the sites, the company opted to use water treatment practices to remove toxins from contaminated groundwater.

Craig Giesmann, director of Environmental Services for Ameren Missouri in St. Louis, said that a report for Ameren Missouri by Haley & Aldrich Inc. shows that excavating and transporting coal combustion residuals can cause harm to surrounding communities. He added that Ameren’s groundwater treatment is in full compliance with the Coal Ash Rule requirements.

“We wanted to make sure that we are good stewards in the communities that we work and live in,” Giesmann said. “It just didn't make good common sense to spend years transporting that [Coal Combustion Residuals Rule] material across our community’s roads in large trucks, when we can resolve any remaining issues through other means. … The water in the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers are unimpacted by our operations, in that we certainly do have clean groundwater outside of our operation’s footprint.”

The “Poisonous Coverup” report, however, claims there are alarming levels of toxins and heavy metals in the groundwater near Ameren’s plants, including the neurotoxin lithium as well as arsenic, a known carcinogen and neurotoxin.

“They say that it's coming from something other than their coal ash dump,” Russ said. “They analyze the data in a way that makes it look like there's no contamination when we know there is. So in one way or another, they're sweeping it under the rug.”

Schuba said that although it can feel futile to challenge multibillion-dollar companies, the public has significant power to hold utility companies accountable. She added that public input is required in the implementation of federal regulations, typically in the form of public hearings.

“The regulators need to see… that people care about this issue in the whole milieu of other environmental issues,” Schuba said. “The priorities in society come from the grassroots — from people who elect others to represent them.”

Related Event
What: Public hearing for Ameren Missouri Electric Rate Case
When: Hearing schedule starts Jan. 31
Where: Locations vary per date

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New coal ash report alleges risk to St. Louis drinking water

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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