Taum Sauk deal angers land conservationists

The groups wanted more public land from Ameren.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007 | 11:28 p.m. CST; updated 2:26 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Leading environmental organizations are attacking the Taum Sauk settlement announced Wednesday, saying the state should have secured land rights to areas near the flooded site instead of expanding the Katy Trail.

Former Missouri Parks Association President Susan Flader said ownership of Church Mountain and the Taum Sauk Creek Valley were part of early settlement agreements and received support from Gov. Matt Blunt but were removed from the final settlement.

“All of us feel sold out by this agreement,” she said.

The state and utility company Ameren reached a $180 million settlement Wednesday regarding the Taum Sauk reservoir collapse nearly two years ago. The cash and property settlement resolves a civil suit filed by the state attorney general and all other state demands for compensation.

The reservoir collapsed in December 2005, injuring a family of five and flooding Johnson’s Shut-ins State Park with 1.3 billion gallons of water. The reservoir was part of a hydroelectric plant that needed repairs and had faulty equipment causing the reservoir to overflow.

The settlement, which must still gain final approval in Reynolds County Circuit Court, requires Ameren to spend a total of $103 million in restoring the state park and requires the company to rebuild the reservoir.

Additionally, the utility company must pay nearly $70 million in natural resources damages, including $18 million to extend the Katy Trail to Kansas City, and $5 million for education in Reynolds County.

But Flader said the Missouri Parks Association had hoped to get more public land out of the deal.

The association and four other state conservation groups had asked that the settlement agreement include purchasing Church Mountain and the Taum Sauk Creek Valley — areas that were once public use and are currently owned by Ameren.

“It’s a really bad deal for the state,” Flader said. “We feel like the state is giving up on Church Mountain because of the cost of the Katy Trail.”

Earlier settlement proposals asked for state ownership of the Rock Island Railroad which would be converted into the Katy Trail. But in the accepted settlement offer, the state will build the trail alongside the railroad, making its construction more expensive. Blunt said in a teleconference Wednesday he thought the settlement was fair.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we got most of what we wanted,” Blunt said. “Completing the Katy Trail has always been a higher priority in terms of the settlement.”

Natural Resources Department Director Doyle Childers said the department wanted to gain ownership or a lease of Church Mountain through the settlement but were deterred by the cost.

Childers said the mountain was valued at $66 million and would have taken away from other items the state did receive.

“The Church Mountain deal was part of the area that we really did negotiate very hard for, but $66 million was just too much to give up out of the settlement,” Childers said. “So all in all, we felt in the final countdown that was one thing we had to give up that we’d have liked to have.”

Flader said she questions the price cited by Childers and said based on current values for wild land, the areas should not have cost more than $2 million. If the cost had come up in court, it wouldn’t be substantiated, she said.

But the settlement offer does give the state the right of first refusal if Ameren decides to sell the two properties within the next 20 years.

As a part of the settlement, Ameren also is not allowed to pass $180 million to rate payers. But Ameren spokeswoman Susan Gallagher said any enhancement costs while rebuilding the plant not related to the 2005 breach may be passed on to rate payers.

“Essentially, insurance is expected to cover substantially all the settlement costs and also the cost of rebuilding the upper reservoir at Taum Sauk,” Gallagher said.

Flader said that’s part of the reason the Missouri Parks Association is unhappy with the settlement.

“Ameren is receiving insurance money, they’re not paying a penny out of their own pocket and they’re putting an exorbitant price tag on that mountain,” Flader said. “Ameren gave up nothing and the state is getting little in return.”

Before court approval, citizens have 30 days to send comments about the settlement to the Department of Natural Resources. These comments will be considered in any changes made to the settlement agreement.

Flader said the conservation groups plan on submitting comments but do not expect the plan to change.

“They know what our position is and they’ve caved,” Flader said. “They obviously have another agenda.”

The state forfeited its right to appeal any changes as a part of the settlement agreement.

“(Nixon) wouldn’t sign the settlement agreement unless we removed the ability of us to appeal changes in the settlement,” Childers said. “In this case, the attorney general could basically change the settlement around from what was agreed to and I’m not sure what we could do about it.”

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