In the wake of coal-ash spills in other states, the Sierra Club continued its “Beyond Coal” campaign against Ameren Missouri and its Oakville coal-fired plant last week, taking its case to faith groups and Gov. Jay Nixon.
On Feb. 11, Metropolitan Congregations United, or MCU, sponsored a forum at Mary, Mother of the Church that focused on the Meramec Energy Center, Ameren’s coal-fired plant nine miles away in Oakville. MCU invited Mary, Mother parishioners, a scientist, an environmental lawyer, the head of a faith group and the head of the Missouri Sierra Club to speak about Meramec.
Ameren deposits coal ash left over from its energy production at Meramec into settlement ponds, the majority of which are unlined.
It has submitted a tentative five-year plan to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, to build a coal-ash landfill on top of its current coal-ash ponds.
Chemical engineer Matthew Factor explained how coal plants operate and how they affect the surrounding environment. He cited a Feb. 2 incident in North Carolina, in which a pipe from an unlined Duke Energy coal-ash pond collapsed and spilled up to 82,000 gallons of coal ash into the Dan River, which provides water to several cities in Virginia. A larger 2008 spill from a Tennessee Valley Authority plant is still being cleaned up, he added.
Washington University School of Law professor Maxine Lipeles, who also co-directs the school’s Environmental Law Clinic, gave an overview of coal plants and the law, noting that the coal industry is not held to the same environmental standards as similar industries.
“Coal plants have had a series of exemptions and loopholes and very slow-moving, if moving at all, processes, so they don’t face the same kind of environmental law as a lot of other heavy industry,” she said. “Some people will refer to this now as the ‘war on coal,’ but my view about the war on coal is that it is making people that use coal for mining and burning accountable to the same environmental requirements that other industries have been accountable for since the 1970s.”
Of the roughly 55 people in attendance, five people, some of whom identified themselves as current or retired employees from Ameren, questioned why Ameren was not invited to the forum and said the information presented by the speakers was misleading.
In response to a question from one of these attendees about whether Ameren complies with all Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards, Missouri Sierra Club President John Hickey noted that Meramec was grandfathered in and allowed to continue polluting over the standards that newer plants must meet and that air pollution cannot be proved unless air is monitored.
The closest Missouri DNR air monitor is in Herculaneum in Jefferson County, closer to Ameren’s Rush Island plant, which does show violations.
“We have this sort of Orwellian system where you can only bust a plant for air pollution if there’s a monitor, but there’s no monitors,” Hickey said. “It sounds crazy, but that is actually how it works in the state of Missouri.”
However, Gary Brown, a Mary, Mother parishioner who has been a welder and pipefitter at Ameren’s coal plants for 35 years and currently works at the Labadie Energy Center in Franklin County, disputed Hickey’s contention that the air around the plants is not monitored for sulfur dioxide pollution. He noted that Ameren has emissions monitors on its stacks that monitor its emissions in real time.
“I know I’m in church, but I have to call the BS card on that,” he said. “You’re playing on people’s emotions here, and a lot of the information you’ve given out is simply not true. A lot of it is, but a lot of it is not.”
Lipeles said the monitors in question are set up to measure different things: The monitors on the stacks monitor the plant’s actual emissions, but air-quality monitors spread throughout the neighboring area would monitor chemical levels in the air that nearby residents are actually breathing.
When forum organizer Ginny Schrappen said that the time limit for the forum was up, the Ameren employees continued to contend that the company had been misrepresented.
“Ameren has been bashed here with no representation,” one retiree said.
“The EPA says the coal-ash ponds are non-hazardous,” another man said. “Are you saying you know more than the EPA?”
“The EPA, a number of years ago, decided not to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste. That just hasn’t gone through because of the politics,” Lipeles replied. “But the EPA is pretty concerned about how coal ash is handled.”
Before saying a prayer that ended the night, Mary, Mother’s pastor, Jim Telthorst, said he agreed that Ameren should be represented at future events.
“It would be good to hear from another point of view, because people are seeing these things differently,” he said.
In a Feb. 13 letter to Nixon, the Missouri Sierra Club requested groundwater monitoring at Ameren’s Missouri coal plants.
The DNR has said any future water permits granted to Ameren would require groundwater monitoring, but the Sierra Club maintains that Ameren operates its plants using expired permits to avoid compliance.
The group’s request to Nixon is based off levels of groundwater chemicals reported by Ameren itself in a Feb. 3 study that the company said shows no ill health effects from its coal-fired Labadie Energy Center in Franklin County. The levels of chemicals reported in Ameren’s study are from monitors more than a mile from Labadie’s coal-ash ponds.
In a Sierra Club press conference, however, Bob Criss, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University, said the levels of groundwater contamination reported by Ameren in the study are “extraordinarily high” —including arsenic levels six times higher than federal drinking water standards.
“This water is not drinkable,” he said. “It’s very interesting that Ameren has been extremely reluctant to do any groundwater testing in the vicinity of their plant even though contamination in that region has been suspected for a very long time.”
Ameren representatives did not respond to telephone calls and emails seeking comment about the forum or the letter to Nixon before the Call’s press time.