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Missouri environmental groups criticize proposed discharge permits for power plants

Ameren’s coal-powered Labadie Energy Center on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Labadie, Missouri. Environmental advocates say unlined pits of coal ash waste from the plant are leaching heavy metals and other carcinogens into drinking water.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Ameren’s coal-powered Labadie Energy Center on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Labadie, Missouri. Environmental advocates say unlined pits of coal ash waste from the plant are leaching heavy metals and other carcinogens into drinking water.

Missouri residents are decrying a potential change to state rules that would allow power plants to discharge contaminants into groundwater through a general permit for multiple facilities.

Power plants currently have individual, site-specific permits that allow them to lawfully discharge pollutants like those from coal ash ponds into groundwater.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has proposed putting a master general permit in place that would let power plants and other facilities apply it to different sites.

At a public hearing Tuesday, representatives of the Labadie Environmental Organization and other groups criticized the proposal. Many said the permit would make the state’s regulation and monitoring of toxic sites less stringent.

“No utility in the state — or any state — should be able to allow to manage dangerous closed coal ash sites sitting in flood plains with a general permit that allows them to hide their deadly contaminants from regulators and the public,” said Oakville resident Tom Diehl, who lives near the Ameren Meramec Energy Center.

Ameren, which operates four coal-fired plants in the St. Louis region, contends on its website that “expert-led investigations” prove its ash basins do not impact public drinking water, private wells or local rivers and pose no threat to the public.

Labadie resident Janet Dietrich called the proposal an “outrageous proposition.”

“It sets no effluent limits, no monitoring requirements, no interim reporting requirements and thus no need to make the community aware of the issuing of these permits,” she said. “The public will never know who gets the permit and what our groundwater levels of pollutants could possibly be. There will be no checks and balances on the leaking ash ponds and other toxic sites in our state in perpetuity.”

DNR officials say the new permit would apply only to closed facilities that have met strict containment requirements. They say a general permit makes it easier for the department to regulate coal-fired plants and other toxic sites as they cease operation.

The DNR will consider the residents' concerns about site eligibility when deciding whether to move forward with the new permit, said Heather Peters, watershed protection section chief at the DNR.

“The entire point of these hearings is finding things we need to address, it sounds like if we do decide to go forward with the permit we would clarify that,” she said.

Peters said no power plants currently in operation would be eligible for the new permit. That includes the Ameren Labadie power plant, which has drawn criticism from many local environmentalists who want more stringent regulations for its coal ash basins, which contain waste from years of burning coal.

DNR officials recently issued a new operating permit to the plant, the state’s largest, that allows pollutants from its coal ash basins to be released into groundwater.

“If [sites] have arsenic or lead at a level that exceeds any of our groundwater standards, they’re not eligible for this permit,” Peters said. “And that’s not a one-point-in-time assessment, they have to be done over multiple years so we have to have significant data.”

Many residents also criticized the DNR for meeting first with industry officials from the energy industry to discuss the change instead of consulting with local groups and residents and said public hearings on the permit were not well-publicized.

Peters said the DNR did not invite representatives from Labadie Environmental Organization to stakeholder meetings since the proposal wouldn’t apply to the Labadie Plant, which is still in operation.

“It was not a hidden agenda,” she said, adding it’s normal to discuss proposals with industry officials to understand their processes and concerns. “There have been a lot of different conversations that have been going on as we drafted this permit.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter @petit_smudge

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Sarah Fentem reports on sickness and health as part of St. Louis Public Radio’s news team. She previously spent five years reporting for different NPR stations in Indiana, immersing herself deep, deep into an insurance policy beat from which she may never fully recover. A longitme NPR listener, she grew up hearing WQUB in Quincy, Illinois, which is now owned by STLPR. She lives in the Kingshighway Hills neighborhood, and in her spare time likes to watch old sitcoms, meticulously clean and organize her home and go on outdoor adventures with her fiancé Elliot. She has a cat, Lil Rock, and a dog, Ginger.