Updated at 12:45 p.m. with additional information, new state from Ameren.
The Sierra Club is following through on its threat to sue Ameren Missouri over emissions from three of the company's coal-fired power plants.
The advocacy group informed Ameren in December of its intent to sue to enforce the Clean Air Act, saying the company's own data proved that its Rush Island, Labadie and Meramec power plants were emitting too much fine particulate matter.
"Legal action is not something that you want to resort to lightly," said Andy Knott, the representative for Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "But when you have egregious issues like this, sometimes it's the only method."
The Sierra Club is taking action under a provision in the federal Clean Air Act that allows citizens or advocacy groups to sue companies for non-compliance, or to sue the government for failing to enforce the law. More groups have been taking advantage of that provision, says Melissa Berry, a visiting associate professor of environmental law at the University of Missouri law school, though she did not have exact statistics.
“They have become less expensive to litigate because there’s more of them, and the groups like the Sierra Club are becoming more sophisticated,” she said. “While the data may change, they are more familiar with the statutes. There’s less re-inventing of the wheel.”
Berry says changes to federal law mean more information is now publicly available and easier to access via the internet.
The statute gives the company 60 days to reach a settlement. The government can also choose to step in and file its own enforcement action in that 60-day period. Doug Williams, an environmental law professor at Saint Louis University law school, says it’s not uncommon for federal officials to take over prosecution – but failure to do so doesn’t mean the citizen’s case doesn’t have merit.
“It could be a resource issue,” he said. “A lot of federal agencies don’t have the resources for enforcement action.”
The Sierra Club's Knott said his group is hoping Ameren will sit down and negotiate a settlement to the alleged violations, which total nearly 10,000 over a five-year period.
"We want Ameren to clean up their emissions and if they can't do that, they should be considering retiring some of the plants," he said.
The Meramec plant in particular, Knott said, is 60 years old, making it a "dinosaur." And he says a report from the Clean Air Task Force shows why the suit is so important.
"Ameren's power plants here in the St. Louis region contribute to over 200 premature deaths every year and nearly 4,000 asthma attacks every year," he said. "That's the real reason why we're concerned about these emissions."
Doug Williams, an environmental law professor at Saint Louis University, says the Sierra Club’s general litigation strategy appears designed to address a hole in the Clean Air Act – the grandfathering of older coal-fired power plants like Ameren’s Meramec facility. These plants, he says, are kept in operation well beyond their useful life because of the cost associated with installing new pollution controls or building a cleaner plant.
The Sierra Club has filed similar lawsuits across the country, including one against Ameren's plant near Peoria, Ill. Emily Rosenwasser, a spokeswoman for the Beyond Coal campaign, said one such suit against Iowa-based Mid-American Energy Company led that company to phase out coal at several of its plants and install pollution controls at others. Rosenwasser added the company also agreed to a major solar installation. MidAmerican did not admit to any Clean Air Act violations in the consent decree.
Williams, the SLU professor, said advocacy groups like the Sierra Club are often in a better position than the federal government to ask for those kind of investments because they often partner with local environmental organizations. The Sierra Club is the only party in the suit filed against Ameren today, the but the Labadie Environmental Organization has been heavily involved in the publicity surrounding the case.
In a written statement today, Ameren’s vice president for environmental services, Mike Menne, called the lawsuit without merit, noting that a federal judge in Texas recently rejected similar allegations from the Sierra Club against Dallas-based Luminant Energy.
"Ameren Missouri has at all times operated our energy centers in accordance with state and federal regulations and permitting requirements. Contrary to the Sierra Club assertions, Ameren Missouri has been extraordinarily successful at limiting opacity. Missouri requires power plants to measure the level of opaqueness of the flue gas as it leaves the energy center and to use appropriate measures to limit the level of such opacity. Opacity exceedances rarely occur. Equipment at our facilities removes 99% of particulates or soot. We report all of our emissions as required to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and the agency has not cited our Missouri coal-fired energy centers for opacity or permit violations. The filing of such litigation is a common tactic used by opponents who are striving to remove coal from energy choices available to customers."
The U.S.Department of Justice filed suit against Ameren in 2011, alleging that the company made major changes to the Rush Island plant a decade ago without getting the required permits or installing the latest pollution control technology. Ameren says the work was routine maintenance that did not require permits.
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