Missouri regulators unable to say whether air near Ameren's Labadie power plant is safe to breathe
Updated 5:00 p.m., Sept. 24 with vote result - The Missouri Air Conservation Commission has voted to designate parts of Franklin and St. Charles counties as "unclassifiable" for sulfur dioxide pollution.
Thursday's vote follows a recommendation by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources earlier this week.
An "unclassifiable" designation means that based on the available information, state regulators were unable to determine whether sulfur dioxide levels in the air around Ameren's Labadie power plant meet the health-based limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
After the commission's vote, Ameren's senior director for environmental policy and analysis, Steve Whitworth, said continued air monitoring will confirm the area is in compliance. "We’ve said all along that monitoring is the best approach," Whitworth said. "EPA and MDNR have traditionally used that approach in the case of other pollutants such as fine particulates and ozone, and monitoring actually measures the actual air quality."
But Labadie resident Patricia Schuba said the state was failing to protect the health of its citizens — and the local economy. "You know, part of an overall positive economic plan would be to have clean air, clean water, vibrant local businesses," Schuba said. "And this decision today runs counter to that."
Schuba said she felt let down by the regulatory process. "I don’t know, I’m just really sad," Schuba said. "It’s just unfortunate that people don’t have a seat at this table. We just don’t."
For more information, read our Sept. 22 story:
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources is recommending that the area around Ameren's Labadie power plant be designated as "unclassifiable" for sulfur dioxide pollution.
That means state regulators could not determine whether or not air quality in those parts of Franklin and St. Charles counties meets the federal health standard.
The state had three alternatives for designating the levels of sulfur dioxide around the Labadie plant: attainment, nonattainment and unclassifiable. Here is how those designations are defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act's National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS):
- Nonattainment: An area that the EPA has determined violates the 2010 SO2 NAAQS, based on the most recent three years of ambient air quality monitoring data or an appropriate modeling analysis, or that EPA has determined contributes to a violation in a nearby area.
- Attainment: An area that the EPA has determined meets the 2010 SO2 NAAQS and does not contribute to a violation of the NAAQS in a nearby area based on either: a) the most recent three years of ambient air quality monitoring data from a monitoring network in an area that is sufficient to be compared to the NAAQS per EPA interpretations in the Monitoring Technical Assistance Document (TAD), or b) an appropriate modeling analysis.
- Unclassifiable: An area where the EPA cannot determine based on available information whether the area is or is not meeting the 2010 SO2 NAAQS and whether the area contributes to a violation in a nearby area.
Translation: to decide whether levels of sulfur dioxide are unhealthy or not, you either need three years of air monitoring data or you have to rely on computer modeling.
In August, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources proposed two options for public comment: nonattainment based on modeling and unclassifiable based on monitoring.
The state's modeling estimates were based on the most recent three years of actual sulfur dioxide emissions data provided by Ameren for the Labadie plant. They showed violations of the federal standard: nonattainment.
Conversely, data from two air monitors that Ameren installed near the plant in April did not show any air quality problems. In addition, the state pointed to some of its own monitoring from the 1990s that measured sulfur dioxide levels under the current EPA limit. But federal law requires three years of recent air monitoring to conclude an area is in "attainment," so the state proposed Labadie be designated as "unclassifiable."
The Missouri Chapter director for the Sierra Club, John Hickey, called the state's recommended determination "just so nuts."
"That means that Ameren does not have to clean up the sulfur dioxide pollution coming from the smokestacks at Labadie," Hickey said. "And that means people who live in St. Charles County and Franklin County, or who recreate in those areas, are going to be exposed to a level of sulfur dioxide that is injurious to their health."
According to the EPA, inhaling unhealthy levels of sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory problems like asthma and aggravate existing heart disease.
Ameren declined St. Louis Public Radio's request for an interview. In a written statement attributed to the company's senior director for environmental policy and analysis, Steve Whitworth, the company said evidence reflects that the air quality in Franklin County fully complies with the federal sulfur dioxide standard. "All along, our position has been that monitoring data is more reliable than modeling projections and a designation of unclassifiable is appropriate because modeling projections are dependent on the accuracy of a variety of inputs and have reached contrary results," Whitworth said. "Additional monitoring will verify the appropriate air quality classification near the Labadie Energy Center and ultimately resolve modeling discrepancies."
Ameren submitted its own modeling calculations that resulted in lower sulfur dioxide estimates than the state's.
On Thursday, the Missouri Air Conservation Committee will vote on whether to approve the MDNR's recommended air quality designations. That meeting is open to the public and will take place at 9 a.m. at the MDNR's St. Louis Regional Office at 7545 S. Lindbergh Blvd., Suite 220.
After that, the federal EPA will have until July 2016 to reach a final decision.
For science, environment and health news, follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience