Missouri proposes ‘permit lite’ for leaking coal ash dumps | Opinion

The Labadie Energy Center sits on the Missouri River in Franklin County (Courtesy of Ameren Missouri).

Our environmental safeguards are being decimated by none other than the agency meant to protect us from pollution, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Staff from DNR met secretly with corporations and consulting firms before releasing a proposed rule that would drastically reduce oversight at coal ash dumps by allowing them to continue leaching toxic pollutants into groundwater, rivers, and streams. Missourians collectively have the power to stop this terrible proposed permit from going forward by making our voices heard during the public comment period and virtual hearing, scheduled for May 24, 2022.

DNR has a history of allowing Missouri’s influential utilities to operate above the law.

This time, DNR proposes that coal ash dumps, which it knows are contaminating groundwater, move from a tailored site-specific permit to a lax general permit. The proposed general permit for coal ash dumps was referenced as “permit lite” by DNR staff because it lacks important criteria, like groundwater monitoring and contaminant discharge limits, that are required with a site-specific permit.

The “permit lite” comment was made during a meeting with representatives from regulated businesses. DNR’s approach to coal ash contamination is akin to ignoring a festering wound in the hopes that it will just go away.

All coal-burning power plants in Missouri have leaking, unlined coal ash disposal sites that discharge contaminants into groundwater. None of these leaking sites comply with federal liner requirements, meaning groundwater pollution will pose a greater risk over time.

Coal ash contains toxic metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury. These contaminants cause brain and nervous system damage, heart and kidney problems, and cancer. Sensitive populations, like infants and children, are covered in the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services human consumption warnings of fish with these contaminants.

“Master general permits, as opposed to site-specific permits, are issued to multiple locations where activities are similar enough to be covered by a single set of requirements,” according to DNR.

So you may find it odd, like we do, that DNR says its proposed coal ash general permit would only cover two to ten toxic dumps throughout the state. The coal ash dumps for which this permit would be applicable are closed sites that are decades old, meaning they’re at higher risk of groundwater contamination because of the age of the ash deposits that have been leaching for years.

The problem with DNR’s proposed general permit for coal ash dumps is that Missouri is a large state with diverse geology.

General permits include facilities like car washes and water released from swimming pools — things that are substantially similar. Local soils, geology and the proximity to, and hydrological relationship with, neighboring creeks, rivers, and groundwater varies significantly from New Madrid to Kansas City.

Additionally, the size, quantity, and nature of the contaminants at each coal ash dump vary from site to site, meaning that a general permit will lack the type of specificity needed to properly monitor these toxic dumps. The proposed general permit is written in such a way that the public has no way to know what standards DNR will require at each site. The public deserves more transparency, not less, from DNR.

The real purpose of this proposed permit is to get around a recent Supreme Court decision that says water pollution that flows from groundwater to surface water — like at the coal ash ponds lining Missouri’s river floodplains — are governed by the Clean Water Act. And, according to the Clean Water Act, such water pollution is unlawful unless permitted. The “permit lite” DNR proposes is a workaround that allows groundwater and surface water pollution with impunity.

We need clean closure of coal ash dumps because they remain a constant threat to water quality, wildlife and human health. These are toxic dumps located in floodplains of Missouri rivers, where floods are more frequent and severe because of climate change.

For now, it is essential that we work together to compel DNR to withdraw its improper general permit for coal ash dumps in our state’s floodplains. We can make this happen because folks throughout Missouri who value clean water are powerful when we work together.

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Patricia Schuba
Patricia Schuba

Patricia Schuba is president of Labadie Environmental Organization and an almost life-long resident of Labadie, Missouri, which includes Ameren Missouri’s largest coal plant. Patricia is a biologist and former healthcare worker who loves her hometown, clean air and clean water.

Jenn DeRose
Jenn DeRose

Jenn DeRose is Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign representative for Missouri. Jenn is a longtime environmental advocate, a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and a resident of the Bevo neighborhood in south St. Louis, where she resides with her husband, cats and an army of plants.