Updated Aug. 22 with details from the trial — An Environmental Protection Agency lawsuit alleging that Ameren Missouri violated the Clean Air Act goes to trial today in U.S. District Court.
The EPA filed suit against the utility five years ago. Officials with the federal agency allege that, in 2007 and 2010, Ameren illegally installed boiler equipment at two units of its Rush Island Power Plant in Jefferson County without required permits. Under the Clean Air Act, such modifications are considered new sources of air pollution, which are subject to stricter emissions limits.
The agency requires power plants to obtain a "prevention of significant deterioration" or PSD permit to prevent increases in air pollution from new sources, which the Rush Island plant did not. Such permits are must be acquired before beginning construction on a major project. The EPA claims that the new equipment enabled the facility to burn more coal and therefore emit more sulfur dioxide.
Sulfur dioxide is a toxic gas that can worsen asthma and other respiratory conditions. In 2013, the EPA designated areas of Jefferson County as exceeding air quality standards for sulfur dioxide.
Ameren officials argue that the $72 million expansions to the two Rush Island units were "routine maintenance" that does not require permits.
Tom Byrne, senior director of regulatory affairs at Ameren Missouri, also said that the replacements comply with regulations.
"Our analysis showed that those replacements would not increase emissions at those units and that's the standard for whether or not you need to get a permit, " he said. "So we don't believe we violated any of the requirements."
Sulfur dioxide emissions from Ameren's power plants have declined since 2011, when they began using ultra-low sulfur from Peabody Energy mine in Wyoming. The company also installed a scrubber, a device that removes sulfur dioxide before it is released into the atmosphere, at its Sioux power plant in St. Charles County in 2010. But it is the only one out of Ameren's four Missouri plants to do so.
Byrne said acquiring permits and installing scrubbers raises utility costs for Ameren's customers.
"We've got to be concerned about our customers and be diligent stewards of their money," he said. "We don't apply for permits that we aren't required to apply for."
Members of the Sierra Club's Missouri chapter were present at the trial. The Sierra Club sued Ameren in 2014 over allegations that the company's Rush Island, Meramec and Labadie plants had violated federal air quality regulations. That lawsuit was settled last month.
Gary Kapplar, a resident of Festus who lives near the Rush Island plant, said that he is "concerned about the quality of air and water" in the area. He is also an Ameren shareholder.
"[Ameren's] dividends are through the roof," Kapplar said. "Can't they use those funds to control air pollution?"
The trial is scheduled to last for three weeks.