Sierra Club, Ameren representatives debate anti-coal measure at meeting

School board votes 7-0 not to adopt anti-coal resolution

By Gloria Lloyd

Representatives of the Sierra Club and Ameren Missouri made their cases for and against an anti-coal resolution to the Mehlville Board of Education last week, but in the end, the school board decided not to wade into what it called a political issue not directly related to its mission of educating children.

Local group Clean Land, Air and Water, or CLAW, and the Sierra Club presented three speakers at the Aug. 7 high school-style debate, while Ameren fielded just one representative, Director of Environmental Services Steve Whitworth.

Oakville High School debate coach Ed Taylor moderated the forum.

Although Ameren will close its coal-fired power plant in Oakville, the Meramec Energy Center, by 2022, CLAW and the Sierra Club have pushed for an earlier closing date.

The board took up the anti-coal resolution because Meramec is close to Rogers Elementary School, where some parents are concerned about the emissions, groundwater pollution and coal-ash dust from the nearby plant, which is Ameren’s oldest and the largest polluter in St. Louis County.

Presenting for the Sierra Club, Washington University School of Law professor Maxine Lipeles, who also co-directs the school’s Environmental Law Clinic, said that since the Meramec plant opened in 1953, little has been done to upgrade it so it pollutes less.

“This is an ancient plant that’s being operated as an ancient plant, even though there’s modern technology out there,” Lipeles said. “They’ve made the decision to close the plant, so why is this relevant? It’s because in the intervening eight years, all of these pollutants are going to continue to come out of this plant without any modern pollution controls, even though they’re available.”

A 1988 study of groundwater around the Meramec plant’s 10 lined and unlined coal-ash ponds found groundwater contamination around the ponds, but the water and air around the plant are not monitored and no follow-up studies have ever been conducted, Lipeles added.

Making the case for Ameren, Whitworth said the company is undergoing the largest energy-efficiency program in the history of Missouri and has invested $100 million into solar rebates that have tripled the amount of solar energy in the St. Louis region. Focusing on the impact of the Meramec plant to the area, Whitworth noted that the coal plant has a payroll of $15.7 million and pays $6.6 million in annual property taxes and that rates of emergency-room visits in Oakville are no higher than the Missouri average.

Ameren is moving to cleaner energy, he added, but it has to do it in a “responsible manner” that does not increase its rates more than customers can pay.

“The Meramec Energy Center has been a good neighbor to this community for over 60 years,” Whitworth said. “Taking coal completely out of the picture in a short time period would be irresponsible and harmful to our customers, because our energy costs would — by a conservative estimate — double overnight.”

With coal out of the picture, customers would pay $100 more a month, or $1,200 more for electricity a year, which would hit the hardest for Ameren’s low-income customers, Whitworth noted.

During the debate, the power flickered off in the Nottelmann Auditorium due to rainstorms outside, an irony that was not lost on the board members or on the roughly 50 audience members who came to watch.

During a question-and-answer session that followed the debate, one of the board’s key concerns was whether renewable energy could power everything that coal now does in Ameren’s service area.

Chemical engineer, sustainable-technology consultant and Oakville High graduate Matt Factor addressed that concern, noting that Germany has a climate that is less favorable to wind and solar energy than Missouri’s, but the European country nonetheless can meet three-fourths of its energy demand with renewable energy, and Iowa uses wind energy to meet 30 percent of its electricity use.

St. Louis physician John Kissel addressed the health concerns the plant poses, noting that a study conducted for the Environmental Integrity Project by Boston University School of Public Health researcher Dr. Jonathan Levy found that the social costs of the Meramec plant are greater than the revenue from the electricity it produces. In a ranking of the 50 dirtiest power plants in America, Meramec was ranked in the top 18, Kissel added.

At the beginning of the meeting, three speakers asked the board not to intervene in the matter, and five said they were for the resolution, including former board members Jan Polizzi and Tom Diehl, who previously delivered 225 letters in support of the resolution to the board.

One of the speakers who asked the board not to pass the resolution was Daniel Carter, a recent graduate of Oakville High School, who said he supports clean energy but felt the resolution was out of the realm of what the board should consider.

“A school board has never voted, as far as I’m aware, to restrict the ability of a business to operate, and obviously this resolution is without force of law,” he said. “I would ask, though, that the school board remain outside of what can be perceived as partisan issues.”

Longtime resident Ken Dale said he has lived in the district all his life, 81 years, and he wondered why the board would want to get involved in the issue at all.

“My first question is: Why is Mehlville getting involved in this clean air?” he said. “I know all about the schools — my daughter was in the first graduating class of Oakville.

“The school board should take care of that and that alone and not get involved in these other things that are beyond their purview, if you will.”

In the end, the board agreed, voting 7-0 not to adopt the resolution, although some of the board members said they support the resolution’s aims and want the plant to close sooner than 2022.

The Mehlville board has a precedent in the past of not intervening in hot-button issues — in 2004, anti-gaming groups unsuccessfully approached the board to ask it to take a stand against multiple proposals for casinos in south county, including the River City Casino in Lemay, which opened in 2010, and a proposal for a casino by the Jefferson Barracks Bridge that never went through.