Official says Ameren staff shouldn’t have removed probes from Taum Sauk reservoir after collapse

Wednesday, July 25, 2007 | 2:00 p.m. CDT; updated 10:49 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 18, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Utility employees who removed safety gauges at the Taum Sauk reservoir immediately after it collapsed essentially tampered with key evidence, a state dam safety official testified.

James Alexander was the first person called as a witness as the Missouri Public Service Commission opened a hearing Tuesday into the December 2005 collapse at Ameren Corp.’s mountaintop hydroelectric plant. Six Ameren employees, including a company vice president, were scheduled to testify as the hearing resumed today.

In his opening statement Tuesday, attorney Robert Haar suggested the PSC had no jurisdiction over the reservoir, which falls under the oversight of the federal government. He suggested the PSC may have been politically pressured into holding the hearing.

“In light of all the investigations that have taken place and in light of the fact that it’s 19 months after the collapse, we frankly do question why this commission is conducting this investigation today,” Haar said.

The PSC acknowledges the federal government has jurisdiction over the hydroelectric plant but is looking into the reservoir collapse as part of its general authority to ensure Missouri’s investor-owned utilities are operating safely.

Kevin Thompson, the general counsel for the PSC, said he took offense at Haar’s assertions, calling them “insinuations and allegations of impropriety, which I highly resent.”

The hearing marks the first time Ameren officials have testified publicly before utility regulators about the reservoir collapse that sent more than 1 billion gallons of water over a portion of Reynolds County in southeast Missouri. The flood badly damaged Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park and injured the park superintendent, his wife and three children.

The PSC launched an investigation in June, after the release of a Missouri State Highway Patrol report concerning Ameren’s operations at the Taum Sauk hydroelectric plant before and after the incident.

The report said Ameren employees, or an outside contractor hired by the company, adjusted critical safety gauges at the reservoir so that the gauges were effectively disabled the morning of the collapse. Then, those gauges, also called Warrick Probes, were removed.

Alexander said the commission should ask Ameren managers why the gauges were removed and how many times they had been adjusted over the years.

“In my opinion, those probes should not have been removed until it was reliably documented as to their setting, and everyone was able to verify it,” Alexander said.

Haar asked Alexander during the hearing if anyone had told him that Ameren removed the probes to inhibit the investigation into the collapse.

Alexander said no one had.

Tuesday’s political overtones followed a report last week about e-mails, obtained by The Kansas City Star, suggesting the Missouri State Highway Patrol was pressured by Gov. Matt Blunt’s staff last month to emphasize that Attorney General Jay Nixon had not filed criminal charges in the case.

A patrol report on the collapse found no evidence of a crime, and Nixon announced in May that he would not file criminal charges, based on that finding. Nixon is Blunt’s likely opponent in the 2008 gubernatorial election, and Blunt’s critics say the e-mails demonstrate an attempt by Blunt’s office to put political pressure on the patrol.

The only other witness to testify Tuesday was Tony Zamberlan, an outside contractor who helped Ameren install its safety system at the Taum Sauk reservoir. The system included the Warrick Probes, which were designed to shut down pumps that automatically filled the reservoir.

Testimony in the Highway Patrol report indicates that the Warrick Probes were raised so high on the reservoir wall that water did not touch them in December 2005 when the reservoir overflowed and collapsed.

Zamberlan said he never physically adjusted the probes because he was not authorized to do so. He said he was involved in at least one project to raise the probes roughly a year before the collapse but would not have moved them himself.

While saying his memory was vague, Zamberlan said that he had not visited the reservoir since February 2005 at the latest.

Thompson said in an interview that a key goal of the investigation is to discover whether Ameren put profits ahead of safety at the plant and whether there might be a risk of similar accidents at the utility’s other facilities in Missouri.

“They have a nuclear plant 20 miles from my kids,” Thompson said of Ameren’s nuclear power plant in Callaway County.

Ameren employees scheduled to testify include Mark Birk, vice president of power operations; consulting engineer Steve Bluemner; Taum Sauk manager David Fitzgerald; consulting engineer Tom Pierie; generation coordinator Steve Schoolcraft; and hydro operations manager Warren Witt.

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