Opinion

Opinion: Why does Missouri allow Ameren to operate above the law?

The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act have saved millions of lives over the last 50 years.

In Missouri, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is responsible for enforcing federal environmental laws like these. But the agency, unfortunately, acts more like a lapdog than watchdog when it comes to regulating Ameren Missouri and its coal plants.

DNR allows the utility to operate above the law by allowing Ameren to pollute our communities and shared environment without investing in modern pollution controls. This dereliction of duty is exemplified by DNR’s most recent draft water pollution permit for Ameren’s Labadie coal plant.

DNR must be held accountable for abdicating its duty to protect Missourians.

Ameren’s Labadie coal plant along the Missouri River can easily be seen when visiting wineries in St. Charles County. Labadie is one of the largest coal plants in the country. The fact it lacks modern technology like air pollution scrubbers or a cooling tower is troubling. For example, DNR failed to conduct regular water pollution permit renewals after 1994, allowing the coal plant to operate on an expired permit for 16 years, from 1999 to 2015.

When DNR finally decided to review the water pollution permit in 2015, the agency did not incorporate public comments from Sierra Club, Labadie Environmental Organization, and others that would have brought the permit into compliance with the Clean Water Act.

DNR dismissed our concerns and issued a final permit that allowed Ameren to continue dumping super hot water directly into the Missouri River while ignoring risks to endangered species like the temperature sensitive pallid sturgeon. The agency also failed to consider best available technologies, like a cooling tower, that would mitigate thermal pollution.

Sierra Club legally challenged the 2015 water pollution permit with the state Administrative Hearing Commission (AHC). Five years later, we are still waiting for a decision while DNR initiates a public comment process on yet another flawed permit.

Part of DNR’s defense to Sierra Club’s legal challenge was that an employee conducted a “mental analysis” for why best available technologies that would economically achieve pollution reductions were not needed, somehow never documenting how the conclusion was reached.

When DNR finally provided a written explanation of this “mental analysis,” Ameren’s lawyer wrote DNR’s conclusion as to why a cooling toward was not needed. Missourians deserve a law enforcement agency for pollution that goes beyond a “mental analysis” then allows the polluter it regulates to dictate agency decisions. We need an agency that actually protects Missourians and our natural resources.

Thankfully there is an opportunity for you to hold DNR and Ameren accountable.

Because the permit sunsets after five years, DNR recently issued a new draft permit for public comment, which unsurprisingly fails to meet the minimum protections established by the Clean Water Act. The new draft water pollution permit again fails to address thermal pollution and its impact on endangered species. It also fails to address the impact of Ameren’s leaking coal ash ponds — located in the floodplain of the Missouri River — have on groundwater, water quality, and public health.

DNR knows these coal ash ponds have been leaking cancer-causing toxins such as mercury, cadmium, and arsenic into the groundwater for decades. It is time for DNR to take action.

Community engagement is needed because DNR has a history of looking the other way.

Ameren Missouri has continually violated the Clean Air Act at its Rush Island coal plant, situated south of St. Louis, for more than a decade according to a federal judge in 2019. It took the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Justice to bring a lawsuit against the utility for these violations, despite the fact that DNR is supposed to be the lead regulator.

The judge’s ruling notes that Rush Island’s Clean Air Act violations are so atrocious that Ameren must add pollution controls at both the Rush Island and Labadie coal plants to help make up for how much air pollution the utility had already released. The judge specifically said that, “when Ameren decided to make major modifications to expand Rush Island’s capacity, Ameren refused to play by the rules Congress set.” It was DNR’s responsibility to enforce the Clean Air Act and protect Missourians like you and me. So where was DNR?

DNR has all of the information it needs to issue a strong water pollution permit that complies with the Clean Water Act. However, armed with the knowledge that the AHC can simply ignore legal challenges that could otherwise hold the agency accountable, DNR feels empowered to issue a wholly ineffective water pollution permit.

Anyone who cares about clean water in the St. Louis region needs to attend the virtual public hearing Thursday evening and demand that our state’s environmental regulator no longer allows Ameren to operate above the law. The EPA may have to get involved again, as it did at Rush Island, if DNR is unable or unwilling to enforce federal laws.

This commentary by Gretchen Waddell Barwick, director of the Missouri Chapter of the Sierra Club, is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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