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Environmentalists protest Ameren's proposed coal ash landfill in Labadie

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 23, 2010 -This week, as expected, the Franklin County Planning Commission postponed a decision on amending the county code to allow Ameren to install a controversial coal ash landfill in Labadie. The commission sent the amendments to a three-person review committee for further study. The planning commission will vote on the amendments Aug. 17. If they pass, they would be sent to Franklin County's highest legislative body, the county commission, for a final decision.

An overflow crowd turned up for the planning commission meeting Tuesday night, which ran past midnight. The landfill amendments were last on the agenda, which frustrated Ginger Gambaro, president of the Labadie Environmental Organization.

"A lot of people left without being heard," she said.

Gambaro wants the commission to reopen the amendments to public comment, which was supposed to end Tuesday night. "It was appalling what happened on Tuesday night," she said. "The commissioners were dismissive of the public. They asked very few questions and only one commissioner took notes."

Gambaro said her organization's members planned their speeches under the assumption that the commission would only allow comment on the amendments, not Ameren's plan. So she and her allies were unprepared when the commission allowed discussion of Ameren's proposal. "They changed the rules. They didn't tell us," she said.

That was the reverse of what happened at the first public hearing -- when audience members were frustrated that they were told to limit their comments to the amendments only.

Mike Cleary, an Ameren spokesman, was satisfied with the meeting. "We are pleased that all parties had ample opportunity to state their case," he said. "Going forward, we can't speculate on how the issue might turn out."

Read the Beacon's earlier story below. Posted 5:25 p.m., Mon., July 19 

Tuesday, environmentalists, utility workers and public officials will once more meet in Union to continue to debate a proposed coal ash landfill. The controversial landfill, proposed by AmerenUE, would be built on a 1,100-acre parcel adjacent to its coal-fired power plant in Labadie, along the Missouri River.

The plant captures about 99 percent of the ash produced by burning coal, which prevents it from entering the air -- and eventually, people's lungs. But there is a catch: All that ash must be disposed of somehow. Some of it is sent to an on-site concrete factory where it is recycled into concrete mix. The remainder is funneled into ponds situated next to the plant, where the ash settles to the bottom. But the ponds at all four of Ameren's coal-burning power plants are rapidly filling up, and once they reach capacity, Ameren planners will need to find an alternative storage site.

Ameren's solution -- a proposed landfill along the Missouri River -- has met with strong opposition from some area residents.

The controversy begins

Last September, Ginger Gambaro of Labadie first heard about Ameren's plans. "We didn't even know what coal ash was," she said. But as Gambaro began to learn about Ameren's proposal and the possible dangers of coal ash, she grew concerned. With other residents, Gambaro established the Labadie Environmental Organization (LEO) to oppose Ameren's bid for a landfill.

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The group quickly gathered momentum. In October, 250 people attended an Ameren session on the issue. At the same time, the group contacted the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at Washington University, an organization of faculty and students working to protect the environment through legal action. The clinic agreed to represent LEO.

The Franklin County Planning and Zoning Commission has concluded that the county code said nothing at all about coal ash landfills. Consequently, the county's senior planner drafted amendments to the land use regulations that, if passed, would permit utility landfills to be built, but only in specific areas.

Earlier this month, Ameren supporters and LEO members filled most of a 500-seat auditorium in Union for a meeting of the zoning commission. In recent memory, no other issue has drawn such a high turnout, according to a member of the commission's staff.

Many came expecting to discuss the specifics of Ameren's project. But to the frustration of both sides, the planning commission insisted that comments be limited to the proposed amendments only. "I'm dying to tell you about the project," Ameren's attorney, Tim Tryniecki, told the commission. But the commission insisted that Ameren's project was not under consideration, only the amendments.

Like Tryniecki, Gambaro was under the impression that Ameren's proposal would be under discussion. "There was a lot of frustration because it wasn't what we were led to think it was going to be," Gambaro said of the meeting. "We were so perplexed."

Building in A Floodplain

The confusion about the landfill is unsurprising given the conflicting views offered by Ameren and LEO. Ameren says their landfill will be a safe, state-of-the-art storage facility, but LEO argues a landfill built in a floodplain will never be safe.

"There's nothing anybody can do to tell the Missouri River not to flood," Maxine Lipeles, co-director of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic, told the commission on July 6.

Ameren's plan calls for adding a berm to protect the proposed landfill from floods three feet higher than the 1993 flood. The site is already guarded by an agricultural levy. But at the July 6 meeting, Lipeles pointed out that levees can fail -- as they famously did in New Orleans four years ago. And while she acknowledged that the berm would be quite large, she added, "The history of berms isn't very heart-warming; berms don't last forever."

But Mike Menne, Ameren's vice president of environmental services, says water will not be anywhere near the coal ash. The landfill, he said, would have a four-tiered system of liners that includes a special water collection system. Even in the unlikely event that a berm were to break and flood waters were to hit the coal ash, he says, there would be little to worry about.

At the new landfill, coal ash would initially be sprayed with water, causing it to solidify into a concrete-like material. "You just drive right over this stuff," Menne said. "It's very hard, it's very compact." Menne acknowledged that in a catastrophic flood, "a little of it might move off." But ultimately, he said, the coal ash cannot wash away. "It would be similar to a flood that would go over a gravel road or something of that nature," he said.

But Lipeles is not convinced. "That's a nice theory, but it's not proven," she said.

Opponents of the project are concerned that coal ash, which contains heavy metals like mercury and arsenic, might enter the Missouri River. From there, it could enter the drinking water of people in the metro area. Mike Bush, director of the St. Louis Confluence Riverkeeper, an organization dedicated to protecting local water quality, told the commission that landfills should not be near rivers. "Why am I here? One reason: I live downriver," he said.

What comes next

Tuesday night, the planning commission is expected to wind up its public hearings on the amendments. It could study the issue until mid-August -- or send the amendment to the Franklin County Commission to review. If the latter, the county commission would then hold its own public hearings before reaching a final decision.

Lipeles wants the planning commission to establish an advisory committee to study the issue before recommending any legislative action. But she believes that Ameren has good reason to hurry. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently debating whether to classify coal ash as hazardous waste, which would, for the first time, allow the federal government to regulate its disposal.

"They stand to benefit by getting all of their approvals before the EPA regulations take effect," she said.

But Menne says Ameren is hurrying only because its disposal ponds are nearly full. "The timing of the federal regulation has nothing to do with the timing of our need for added pond capacity at the Labadie plant," he said. He estimated that the ponds will last only three or four more years, about the time it takes to receive permits and start building a new landfill. Furthermore, according to Menne, Ameren designed the new landfill to meet the specifications that the EPA is expected to impose.

Ultimately, Lipeles thinks the best solution is no landfill at all. "We think the best decision is repowering," switching to a cleaner fuel source. "We think the worst decision is a landfill in the flood plain," she said.

She called on Ameren to switch to a cleaner fuel source, like natural gas, which does not pose as many waste problems as coal.

But Ameren spokesman Mike Cleary says switching to natural gas would cause a huge rate hike. "We estimate that the cost of converting the plant to natural gas would be at least $60 million," Cleary said. "What's more, there currently is no natural gas supply to the plant, so it would require building a pipeline."

Hodiah Nemes, a student at Yale University, is an intern at the Beacon.

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