Environmentalists decry proposed ‘permit lite’ for some Missouri coal ash ponds

‘It’s DNR’s job to protect human health and the environment, not to help industry figure out how to circumvent environmental laws,’ says one Missouri resident.

By: - May 24, 2022 1:43 pm

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

A push by Missouri regulators to change permitting requirements for coal ash ponds has environmental groups worried important safeguards will be lifted and toxic chemicals and metals could leach into groundwater with few protections.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources is seeking to move some ash ponds from stringent, site-specific permits to the general permit with few limitations or monitoring requirements. Environmentalists argue the move would give utilities legal cover to keep polluting. DNR says the general permit does not represent a relaxing of requirements for the sites.

“It allows for the continued leaching of pollutants in perpetuity into the groundwater, into the rivers and into the streams of Missouri from coal ash dumps,” said Tara Rocque, assistant director of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at Washington University in St. Louis.

Rocque and about 20 Missouri residents, environmental advocates and attorneys decried the proposal during a public comment session on Tuesday. 

“It’s DNR’s job to protect human health and the environment, not to help industry figure out how to circumvent environmental laws,” said Ted Heisel, a Eureka resident.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ proposal would cover ponds where utilities dump toxic waste from coal-fired power plants. 

In a solid waste forum in February, a DNR official called the proposal a “permit lite.” 

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Brian Quinn, a spokesman for DNR, said in a statement that the comments saying the permit would be less stringent than site-specific ones reflects “a misconception by the public.” 

“This draft permit was proposed only for sites that have completed a robust assessment and demonstrated that the waste mass will not impact groundwater or surface waters of Missouri,” Quinn said. “Sites with ongoing contaminant issues would not be eligible for coverage under the draft proposed permit.”

Coal ash ponds can leach toxic chemicals — including lead and arsenic — into groundwater. The ponds are often located in river floodplains, raising the specter of possible pollution to Missouri’s major rivers.

Under a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued in 2020, entities discharging potential pollutants into groundwater must get a permit if the discharge is the “functional equivalent of a direct discharge from the point source into navigable waters.” 

In the case of at least one coal-fired power plant owned by Ameren, environmentalists have argued that means the coal ash ponds need permits because groundwater is flowing from near the plants toward the Missouri River. 

Rocque said the move to a general permit appears to be an attempt to help utilities circumvent that court decision.

The department said Tuesday that coal ash pits at that plant, Labadie Energy Center, are not eligible for the proposed new general permit.

The proposed permit says specifically that it does not require regularly scheduled groundwater monitoring, though coal ash pits may be subject to it under separate regulations.

“How exactly does DNR intend to discover environmental problems or water quality changes without monitoring at the site?” Rocque said. 

Rocque said in an interview that she found through a Missouri Sunshine Law request that the department intended for the permit to apply at the Chamois Power Plant in Osage County and a chemical plant in Louisiana, Missouri. 

She said Tuesday that more documents produced by the department showed the permit was also under consideration for the Meramec Energy Center, slated for closure this year. 

In a statement, Ameren Missouri’s senior manager of environmental services, Craig Giesmann, said the ash basins pose no risk to the public. He said the utility developed a plan to address groundwater issues. 

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“As we get closer to the end of safely closing the basins, we’re utilizing industry-leading technology to remove up to 99% of trace metals from groundwater,” he said. This proactive step goes beyond what is required. Long after the work is complete, we plan to continue our extensive monitoring and reporting of groundwater information.”

He added: “My Ameren Missouri co-workers and I live in these communities, too. We’re invested in being good environmental stewards, and it’s important for us to get this right.”

DNR was also criticized during Tuesday’s meeting because some of the information online concerning how Missourians could join the virtual public hearing was incorrect. Quinn said the department was investigating and, if it determines stakeholder input was prevented, it could consider holding another public meeting. 

Officials said at the end of the hearing that they would take the public’s comments into consideration before issuing a final decision on the permit.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.

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