The St. Louis area relies on aging coal-burning power plants owned by Ameren to provide the majority of its power. These coal-burning plants generate tons of coal ash waste that put Missouri and Illinois residents’ health at risk.
Coal ash, or fly ash, is toxic waste that’s left after burning coal. The storage and disposal of the coal ash can create environmental disasters such as what recently occurred in North Carolina. Just last week, millions of gallons of the toxic waste poured into the Dan River in Eden, North Carolina thanks to a broken pipe. Duke Energy, the responsible party, and environmental regulators are scurrying to investigate the cause and to determine how to remove the waste and repair the local area.
In Missouri, coal ash has been handled a variety of ways. For instance, it has been stored in disposal ponds at the Meramec Energy Center in Oakville, the Labadie Energy Center in Franklin County and the Rush Island Energy Center in Jefferson County.
The disposal ponds can be unlined—meaning that the coal ash seeps undetected into the groundwater thereby potentially compromising drinking water supplies. The disposal ponds are located in flood plains of the Mississippi, Missouri and Meramec rivers, which together provide drinking water to nearly 60 percent of the state.
Beyond disposal ponds, coal ash has been injected into old limestone mines and illegally dumped, in addition to other ways to deal with the large volume of waste. The storage and disposal of waste can have a significant impact on the people who live near the storage and disposal facilities, especially when things go wrong.
Since 1992, the Sierra Club reported that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MoDNR) has known that a 154-acre, unlined ash pond at Ameren’s Labadie coal-fired power plant has been leaking as much as 50,000 gallons a day. Yet, MoDNR has not required any groundwater monitoring or cleanup, despite the threat to local residents, according to the non-profit organization.
According to the EPA, coal ash contains arsenic, boron, chromium, mercury and other toxic chemicals. These substances are known to cause cancer, damage the nervous system, and aggravate existing breathing problems like asthma. Children are especially susceptible to the dangers of environmental pollution like coal ash, according to medical research.
Despite the health risks created by coal ash pollution, Ameren has put its bottom line above the health of its customers.
In 2011, an Ameren executive told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “if we went after the potential that we’ve seen in our own [energy efficient] study, we wouldn’t have to build another power plant for 20 years and we could retire Meramec and we’d be OK,” he said. But, “we’d lose $30 million a year. And we just can’t do that. It’s that simple.”
The Sierra Club has taken steps to hold Ameren accountable for its air pollution by serving notice of its intent to file a civil lawsuit this spring against the power company for alleged air pollution violations. Based on public records, the group received from MoDNR, more than 10,000 violations of air pollution regulations have allegedly occurred at the Meramec, Labadie and Rush Island plants.
Environmental attorneys at the Simmons Firm are currently investigating the rights of residents who live near the power plants and may have suffered physical injuries and property damages because of the pollution.