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Missouri regulators explicitly allow coal ash pollution at St. Louis-area power plant

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 in Labadie. A permit issued last month by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources specifically authorizes Labadie’s ash basins to discharge pollutants into groundwater for the next five years.

Missouri officials have issued a new operating permit to the state’s largest coal-fired power plant, specifically allowing pollutants from its coal ash basins to be released into groundwater.

The basins at Ameren’s Labadie Energy Center in Franklin County hold millions of cubic yards of waste left from decades of burning coal.

Though the coal ash basins are now closed, environmental advocates have long called for tighter permitting regulations on the waste that remains, arguing it threatens the surrounding area. But a permit issued last month by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources now explicitly authorizes Labadie’s ash basins to discharge pollutants into “waters of the state” for the next five years, alarming nearby residents.

The latest permit is a striking departure from previous versions, which did not specifically address coal ash pollution at the Labadie plant, said Tara Rocque, an attorney with the Washington University Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic.

“What DNR did is they gave Ameren a permit to pollute the Missouri River,” Rocque said. “This is discharge that has been occurring for decades on a daily basis and will continue for decades unless it’s stopped.”

Considered one of the most common types of industrial waste in the U.S., coal ash contains cancer-causing chemicals and other toxins, including arsenic, cadmium and mercury. Without careful management, pollutants can leach into groundwater and surrounding waterways.

Unlike previous versions, a new operating permit for the Labadie Energy Center issued by the Department of Natural Resources specifically allows discharge of pollutants from two coal ash basins, known as LCPA and LCPB, for the next five years.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Unlike previous versions, a new operating permit for the Labadie Energy Center issued by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources specifically allows discharge of pollutants from the plant's two coal ash basins, known as LCPA and LCPB, for the next five years.

In response to a federal order from the Environmental Protection Agency, Ameren closed the two coal ash basins at Labadie in 2020 and covered them with high-density plastic, soil and turf. Labadie’s coal ash ponds contain about 15 million cubic yards of waste, according to estimates from the utility — the largest volume of Ameren’s four coal-fired power plants in Missouri.

The ash basins are located near the Missouri River, the main source of drinking water for St. Louis city residents.

But Ameren officials say the coal ash basins pose little risk to drinking water or river ecosystems. In 2018, a Boston-based consulting firm hired by the utility found “no adverse impacts on human health” from the ash ponds, in line with previous studies commissioned by Ameren.

At the Labadie plant, Ameren plans to roll out a system that pumps water from the ground near the ash basins, removes toxins and reinjects it underground — a technique tested last year at the utility’s Rush Island Energy Center near Festus.

The utility also maintains a network of groundwater monitoring wells around the facility, from which water samples are collected and tested for pollutants, said Craig Giesmann, Ameren’s environmental services manager. “We always want to do the right thing for the environment,” he said. “We live and work in these same communities.”

Still, some Labadie residents have become increasingly frustrated with what they view as a deference among state officials toward Ameren.

Patricia Schuba, president of the Labadie Environmental Organization, on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, near Ameren’s coal-driven Labadie Energy Center 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
Patricia Schuba, president of the Labadie Environmental Organization, near Ameren’s coal-fired Labadie Energy Center.

For Patricia Schuba, DNR’s decision to explicitly allow groundwater pollution from Ameren’s coal ash basins at the Labadie plant was “infuriating.”

“We all realize the influence this company has over state politics,” said Schuba, who heads the Labadie Environmental Organization, a grassroots coalition of local residents advocating for stricter regulations on the plant. “In the beginning, we were very hopeful that by engaging with our state regulators, we could get these things fixed. I’ve come to understand that our regulators are literally kept on a leash by politics.”

A spokesperson for DNR declined an interview request from St. Louis Public Radio, but said in an emailed statement that groundwater pollution from the coal ash basins had been implicitly allowed under previous permits and that the updated permit language was meant to clarify that.

“The previous permit acknowledged discharge to groundwater by implementing groundwater sampling requirements,” the statement read. DNR officials said new language was added to provide clarity because “during the 2021 public comment period, it was evident that individuals were unclear that sampling requirements were a way to monitor the discharge to sub-surface water.”

The statement went on to say, “When a permit contains monitoring requirements, and no obvious discharge prohibition was included in the permit, the permit allows that discharge.”

In other words, by requiring Ameren to test the groundwater near the Labadie plant, DNR officials said, previous permits effectively allowed coal ash pollution — despite the fact that it had not been explicitly included in the permit language.

The permit will remain in effect until Nov. 30, 2026.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award. 

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