Community, activists dissatisfied with Ameren's coal ash management

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WASHINGTON, Mo. — About 50 community members and activists remained at odds with Ameren Missouri at a meeting Wednesday on how to close its coal ash ponds in the St. Louis area.

As required by the Environmental Protection Agency, the utility is hosting public meetings on closing the ponds at its four coal-powered plants. The meeting in Washington was the second of four and closest to the Labadie Power Plant near the Missouri River west of St. Louis.

Coal ash, the waste produced from burning coal, contains heavy metals such as arsenic and molybdenum. Coal ash is usually stored in earthen pits known as ponds. An Environmental Integrity Project report from March found that over 90 percent of coal ash ponds have leached contaminants into groundwater.

Since contamination is present at each of Ameren’s four sites, the utility is required by the EPA to create a "corrective measures" report for each site. These reports show how Ameren plans to fix the contamination.

Ameren published its corrective measures reports in early May, and each sets forth a handful of closure options. The Labadie site’s plan presents five options, with an assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Based on its assessments, Ameren favors "closure in place" options rather than "closure by removal." Closure in place would include placing a plastic cap and a layer of soil on top of the ash pond.

Steve Putrich, a geo-environmental engineer with Haley & Aldrich, one of Ameren’s contracted engineering firms, said the capping method will prevent further contamination because surface water will no longer seep down into the pond.

“When you take that water out, cap it, drain it and keep the rest of the water out, there’s nothing driving the water down in,” Putrich said at the meeting.

Community members, who are concerned with the ash mixing with groundwater, objected.

“But it’s still going to become saturated, and as it’s saturated, it’s going to leach (into groundwater),” Washington resident Mike Smith said.

Putrich said most of the groundwater will flow around the ash, not through it.

“(The ash) is not porous at all, and water always finds the least path of resistance,” Putrich said.

Attendees, who filled the room in the Knights of Columbus Hall, were not satisfied with Ameren’s explanation and demanded closure by removal, known as the “clean closure” method, in which the ash is removed from the pond and stored in a landfill.

“We appreciate that (feedback), and we are here to take comments on that. We have not started construction,” Craig Giesmann, environmental services manager for Ameren, told the gathering.

Patricia Schuba, president of the advocacy group Labadie Environmental Organization, then asked who in the room wanted clean closure. A majority raised their hands and nodded.

"There’s your comment," she said.

Based on its corrective measures report, Ameren does not favor closure by removal because of prolonged truck traffic and the coal ash remaining open to the environment during the removal process.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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