Rebuilding the reservoir

Nearly two years after the Taum Sauk reservoir collapsed, investigations and legal wrangling have left the park — and the community — in limbo.
Saturday, August 18, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:49 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
An aerial view of the Taum Sauk reservoir, before it collapsed. The reservoir and nearby Johnson’s Shut-Ins are located about 180 miles southeast of Columbia.

Trees encroach upon the winding road to Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park. As you cross a bridge, the forest opens into a valley and an expanse of bare dirt and boulders where the park campground once stood. Entering the park is a split reality, with a chain-link fence bordering heavy machinery at work on the left and an intact forest on the right.

Signs of reconstruction are visible along the full length on the 8,670-acre park, past the playground, the visitor’s center and along the footpath to the Shut-Ins, where swimmers play within sight of construction flags.


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Nearly two years after the Taum Sauk reservoir collapsed and unleashed a flash flood of 1.3 billion gallons of water, restoring Missouri’s most popular state park is not the only unfinished business.

AmerenUE received permission to rebuild the reservoir, which was used to generate electricity, from the federal government Wednesday. The utility company has already paid a $15 million federal fine and continues to trade offers and counteroffers with the state in search of a settlement for damages. The state Public Service Commission is investigating whether Ameren put profits ahead of safety, and two candidates in the 2008 governor’s race are accusing each other of mishandling the case.

A slow process

The Shut-Ins partially reopened on June 29, and Reynolds County is beginning to return to normal. Tourism, down last year because of the park’s closure, has rebounded.

The Plain and Fancy Bed and Breakfast on Highway 21 outside Ironton is a common destination for those going to the Shut-Ins, about 29 miles away. Brenda Merello, owner of the bed and breakfast, said she had 25 percent fewer guests last summer but is close to normal again, “partially because it’s not blasted in the news every day about how bad the destruction was.”

Merello said other businesses, such as canoe outfitters and restaurants, also felt the pinch last summer.

She said the Shut-Ins have always been the main reason people come to her bed and breakfast.

“There’s always other things to do but people don’t always know that,” Merello said.

Other area attractions include Taum Sauk, the tallest mountain in Missouri, and canoeing on the Black River.

While business has bounced back, there are some questions about whether the school district will be able to remain open if Ameren doesn’t pay local taxes.

The Lesterville School District, located 15 minutes from the Shut-Ins, receives more than half of its $1.59 million yearly budget from taxes paid by Ameren. The utility company has paid property taxes for the last two years, even though it’s not legally required to do so while the reservoir and power plant are out of service.

“Even though the plant wasn’t generating revenue, we felt that was the right thing to do to support the community,” Ameren spokesman Tim Fox said. “Our commitment was for 2006 and 2007.”

That two-year promise is coming to an end, however, and Ameren officials won’t say whether the company will continue to pay the taxes while the power plant is closed.

Ameren had to obtain permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission before rebuilding the reservoir, but the utility says it doesn’t want to rebuild until a settlement is reached with the state.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission found that Ameren did not commit a crime in the dam breach, but it fined the utility $15 million because the water level in the reservoir had been increased without proper notification.

According to the findings of the energy commission, when the reservoir failed, the normal operating water level was one foot below the dam wall, too high for mistakes or misoperation.

The Public Service Commission’s investigation of the collapse is finishing its third week. Two former Ameren employees who monitored the hydroelectric plant told the commission on Monday that computer readings didn’t indicate any problems with its water level. On Tuesday, a former facility supervisor said he didn’t check the reservoir’s emergency water sensors. If the warning system had worked properly, it could have stopped any overflow and ultimate failure.

Earlier this year, Ameren estimated the reservoir and power plant could be operational by 2009.

The Taum Sauk Power Plant had the capacity to produce 440 megawatts of energy, about 4.4 percent of the utility’s electrical generating capacity in Missouri, which also includes a nuclear reactor in Callaway County.

But with no state settlement and the Public Service Commission investigation, rebuilding has been delayed.

School superintendent Earlene Fox said Ameren pays for 53 percent of the Lesterville district, which has 257 students in three schools, and it is difficult to plan for the future without knowing what will happen.

“We would have to re-evaluate tremendously, but the doors wouldn’t immediately close,” she said. The district would likely start cutting costs by combining classes, using older textbooks and letting go of certain staff, she said.

Ameren pays $4.44 million in taxes to the county, including the $1.59 million that goes to the Lesterville district.

Earlene Fox said she was confident the state and Ameren were close to a settlement in early June but said the investigation started by the state Public Service Commission has her worried again.

“It’s hard to plan with this great unknown in the future,” she said.

Jeff Davis, chairman of the Public Service Commission, said he understands why people in Reynolds County may think the investigation is another barrier to rebuilding, but he said it is his job to ensure Ameren is providing the state with energy safely.

“For the school system, I think it’s important we get back on the road to rebuilding as soon as possible,” Davis said. “I want to finish this up but once we got into this thing it just got deeper.”

Jim Morris of the Missouri Education Department said that in a worst-case scenario the Lesterville district would become bankrupt and prompt the state to intervene, which he said is rare.

Earlene Fox said Ameren has always been supportive of the district, including donating used computers and furniture. “If this isn’t settled, I’m pretty sure I could go to Ameren and ask, would you pay our taxes next year?” she said.

Political squabbling

There have been six investigations into the Taum Sauk reservoir breach.

“The plan is in place, it’s just an issue of settling these investigations,” Ameren spokesman Mike Cleary said.

Davis said the investigation should have no impact on a settlement. “As far as I know there’s nothing that is stopping Ameren from settling with the state,” he said.

Ameren officials have said political arguments between Gov. Matt Blunt and Attorney General Jay Nixon are contributing to delays in reaching a settlement.

In March, Nixon was accused of taking campaign donations from Ameren while investigating the utility in the Taum Sauk case. Nixon returned the funds and was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Missouri Ethics Commission.

Following the release of a Missouri State Highway Patrol report in May on the Taum Sauk disaster, Nixon dropped plans to file a criminal lawsuit against the utility after a discussion with Blunt.

A civil case continues in Reynolds County, where Nixon is seeking damages for residents.

The Kansas City Star reported in June that e-mail messages between Blunt’s office and the Highway Patrol urged the patrol to criticize Nixon’s handling of the case.

Earlene Fox said it feels as if state politics are getting in the way of rebuilding. “I just hope our kids don’t become an endangered species because of these politics,” she said.

The damage done

It’s difficult to imagine what the dam break looked like, the 20-foot-high wall of water knocking trees out of its path and scouring the ground to the bedrock as it crashed down Proffit Mountain.

The breach occurred in the early morning, and there are no known witnesses to the destruction, which injured a sleeping family of five and altered the landscape forever.

Park Superintendent Kim Burfield was there the day it happened.

“There are no words to describe what I felt when I walked into the park that first day,” she said.

Burfield was the assistant park manager in 2005 and was responsible for warning the park superintendent about inclement weather. Burfield said her weather alarm sounded that morning with news of the reservoir collapse. She tried calling the park superintendent but didn’t get an answer.

The superintendent’s home, located in the flood’s path, was knocked from its foundation, and the superintendent’s family, including his three young children, was swept away.

Within 12 minutes, the water destroyed much of the park and quickly receded through the Shut-Ins. The superintendent was found in a tree; his wife and children were found under trees.

Cleanup efforts at the park began immediately, initially focusing on creating a path through the 20-foot-high mound of debris blocking the main road into the park.

“It was truly devastating,” Burfield said.

Ameren took responsibility for the breach and says it has already spent $40 million on restoration.

More than 15,000 truckloads of debris were removed from the park in the year following the disaster, according to Ameren, including 1,748 truckloads of trees, nearly 4,000 loads of rock and almost 8,500 loads of silt.

Beyond knocking over thousands of trees and displacing sediment and rocks, the floodwaters changed the path of the Black River and destroyed the park campground and a wetland area.

The campground has been cleared and the Black River has been restored to its original alignment.

Burfield said another major issue was the creation of a six-acre lake that was more than 15 feet deep, which was caused by the force of the water coming down the mountain. It has since been filled in.

The Shut-Ins, a natural rock gorge created by volcanic rock and carved out by the Black River, withstood the force of the flood. But 180 tons of rock and silt had to be removed by helicopter, Burfield said.

The area today

In July 2005, 52,000 visitors came to Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park. About half that many people came this past July.

Burfield said swimmers and others are curious about what happened and are worried the Shut-Ins were damaged.

“It’s one of their favorite places to go into the water, and they want to know what happened here,” Burfield said. “In a way it’s nice because people are becoming more educated about the geology and plants in the area.”

Restoration work focused on opening the park for daytime use, Burfield said. Once the park closes for the season on Sept. 4, construction will begin on a new visitors center, access to the Black River, a hiking trail along the scar left by the flood and an expanded campsite.

Burfield said 70 percent of people surveyed in Reynolds County said they would be uncomfortable camping at the old site once the reservoir is rebuilt.

“When we rebuild it we want to rebuild it where we know it will be safe,” Burfield said.

The new campsite will be located two miles from the Shut-Ins on the Goggins Mountain Trail.

The completed park is set to open sometime in 2008, but Burfield said it’s too early to be more specific.

For now, the park operates as normally as can be expected, Burfield said as she stood on a platform overlooking swimmers frolicking in the Shut-Ins.

“There are too many emotions to describe,” Burfield said as she watched a teenage boy crawl to the edge of a tall rock.

“I hope you’re not planning on jumping off that,” she yelled with a smile.

Taum Sauk - A look at the past two years

Dec. 14, 2005

Taum Sauk reservoir is breached, sending 1.3 billion gallons of water in Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park and injuring a family of five.

May 2006

A limited part of Johnson’s Shut-Ins park is reopened to visitors.

May 25, 2006

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission releases its final report.

October 2006

AmerenUE and the FERC reach a $15 million settlement: $10 million goes to the federal government and $5 million to a fund to help support the area.

Nov. 15, 2006

Ameren proposes an initial settlement offer to the Department of Natural Resources.

December 2006

The DNR proposes a settlement offer for civil damages. Attorney General Jay Nixon files criminal charges against Ameren.

Feb. 5, 2007

Ameren announces its intent to rebuild the Taum Sauk dam.

April 11, 2007

Ameren rejects the DNR’s settlement offer and presents a counteroffer.

May 2007

The DNR presents a second version of the settlement to Ameren and rejects the counteroffer. Nixon decides not to pursue criminal charges and to continue with civil charges.

June 15, 2007

The state presents a unified settlement offer to Ameren.

July 2007

Johnson’s Shut-Ins opens for partial use. Ameren rejects the state’s offer and presents a new counteroffer. The Public Service Commission begins investigating Ameren.

Evolution of a settlement

Since November 2006, AmerenUE and the Department of Natural Resources have exchanged settlement offers and counteroffers. This account of the evolving settlement was created based on documents released by the DNR in May 2007. DNR spokesperson Connie Patterson would not release details of the current settlement offer.

November 2006

Ameren made the first known settlement offer

$1.6 million for environmental mediation already completed in the park

$53 million for environmental mediation

$25 million for the Department of Natural Resources

$79.6 million

December 2006

The state rejects Ameren’s initial offer and presents a counter offer

$40 million for environmental mediation

$5 million for park maintenance

$20 million for park restoration

$15 million for restoration of the Black River

$5 million for removing sediment from the river

$5 million for ongoing maintenance to the park

$13 million for the Department of Natural Resources

$10 million for Missouri Schools Fund

$2 million for loss of state park use

$30 million and ownership of the Rock Island Railroad to complete the Katy Trail

$5 million and 50 year lease of Church Mountain

$150 million and property rights

April 2007

Ameren presents its terms

$75 million for park restoration and environmental mediation

$10 million for the attorney general

$20 million for the Rock Island Railroad, Johnson’s Shut-Ins master plan and 20 year lease of Church Mountain

$3 million for fish replacement in the Black River

$108 million and property rights

April 2007

Ameren formally rejects the state proposal.

May 2007

The Department of Natural Resources presents a second offer.

$40 million for park restoration and mediation

$5 million for future monitoring of the park

$48 million for the Department of Natural Resources

$2 million for loss of income from the park

$10 million for water pollution

$10 million for Reynolds County Community Damages

Ownership of the Rock Island Railroad

50 year lease for Church Mountain

$115 million and property rights

June 2007

The state presents an offer that has been agreed upon by the DNR, Missouri Department of Conservation, and Attorney General’s Office. Although DNR released these dates, no details have been made available. Patterson said the settlement offer is confidential and she cannot release any specifics.

July 2007

Ameren rejects the unified offer.

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