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St. Charles pushes Ameren to pay for cleanup of toxins found in groundwater

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A large water pump sucks up water collected largely from north St. Louis and St. Louis County in June 2022 at the Bissell Point Water Treatment Plant in north St. Louis. The Environmental Protection Agency has pinned Ameren for toxic chemicals seeping into local water sources in St. Charles.

After the Environmental Protection Agency confirmed Ameren as the source for two toxic chemicals found in St. Charles groundwater wells, the city is demanding the power company bear the cost for cleanup.

The city already had known the power company’s Huster Road Substation was the source of vinyl chloride and dichloroethene, which are linked to cancer and other negative health effects. These chemicals are byproducts of a cleaning solvent for heavy metal equipment called TCE (trichloroethylene), according to the EPA.

“There seemed to be a lot of bureaucratic witch hunting going on over the years to try and find someone else they can hang blame on besides Ameren,” Mayor Dan Borgmeyer said.

City officials investigated all of the businesses in the Wellfield district and found none of them was contributing toxins except for Ameren, the mayor said. St. Charles has seven wells that produce 6 million gallons of water a day. Five of the seven wells are contaminated.

Saint Charles City Hall on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in St. Charles, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Charles City Hall is pictured in December 2021.

According to the EPA, the Elm Point Wellfield has been a Superfund site since the early 2000s when other companies polluted one of the wells. Cleanup was successful on that one groundwater source, but when a toxic plume started spreading in another aquifer in 2021, the city had to shut down more wells.

As a result, St. Charles buys 4 million gallons of water a day from St. Louis. “Our water costs us 70 cents per 1,000 gallons to produce, and when we buy it from St. Louis, it’s $1.07,” Borgmeyer said. Alone, this will cost a half-million dollars for the year if St. Charles has to continue getting water from St. Louis.

St. Charles is working to build new wellfields and bring in expensive equipment that will clean the water without Ameren’s help. Borgmeyer said St. Charles has the resources without taxing residents or increasing water rates for now, but that won’t continue forever.

“We can’t wait a year and a half for all the bureaucracy to work its way out. We need clean water now,” Borgmeyer said. “So we are moving forward to go back to what we had before Ameren polluted our water.”

Residents are concerned about who is going to pay for the cleanup. St. Charles resident and environmental scientist Kristin Heideman believes the EPA hasn’t done its due diligence to provide proper oversight on Ameren.

“This has been going on for over 10 years. It’s not cleaned up yet because our government has dismantled and defunded the EPA,” Heideman said. “Why is the city having to front up money to get our wellfield fixed when it’s very clearly caused by another responsible party?”

Ameren’s coal-powered Labadie Energy Center on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Labadie, Missouri. Environmental advocates say unlined pits of coal ash waste from the plant are leaching heavy metals and other carcinogens into drinking water.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Ameren’s coal-powered Labadie Energy Center last January in Labadie. Environmental advocates say unlined pits of coal ash waste from the plant are leaching heavy metals and other carcinogens into drinking water.

Heideman is proud St. Charles took quick action and shut down the wells before the toxins reached dangerous levels and the water treatment plant. “I’m happy to know that I never had to be concerned about chemicals in my drinking water because the local government took a proactive approach,” she said.

Ameren, which is involved in legal proceedings with the city over water cleanup costs, said only that it is working with the EPA to put a barrier between the power substation and the water supply. The power company is also taking steps that will further break up the toxins.

The EPA said that it will take years to clean up the groundwater and that there have been no detections of toxins in the city’s drinking water. Despite St Charles residents’ misgivings, the EPA plans to hold Ameren solely responsible for cleanup.

“We operate under the polluter pays principle,” said EPA representative Ben Washburn. “And we believe that those who are responsible for contamination are liable for that cleanup.”

Britny Cordera is a poet and journalist based in St. Louis and is currently serving as a newsroom intern at St. Louis Public Radio.

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