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Residents concerned about groundwater pollution from coal ash ponds

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Residents concerned about groundwater pollution from coal ash ponds

LABADIE — She wasn’t intimidated when the pig’s head showed up in her driveway.

She wasn’t afraid when she found “LEO PIG” spray-painted in red on the back of her black Honda Accord.

She didn’t back down when the security cameras around her home slowly disappeared.

Patricia Schuba has been fighting for environmental justice for the past decade as president of the Labadie Environmental Organization, and she hasn’t let harassment and intimidation stop her. Schuba’s nemesis is visible from any point in the town: The smokestacks of Ameren’s Labadie Energy Center, the largest coal-fired power plant in the state, rise above the Missouri River flood plain and the small town of Labadie in eastern Missouri.

Patricia Schuba stands with an old car that was vandalized

Patricia Schuba stands with an old car that was vandalized with “LEO Pig” spray painted on it. LEO stands for Labadie Environmental Organization, a nonprofit of which Schuba is the president. The group’s mission, according to its website, “is to inform and educate the community about the environmental issues impacting health and well being; to inspire positive change; and encourage practices for sustainability.” The group has been fighting for years to force Ameren to close coal ash ponds at its Labadie Energy Center, which it believes is polluting groundwater that residents rely on for drinking.

Schuba’s main concern, though, is what lies below the surface. Since 1970, the Labadie plant has been dumping coal ash, the leftover waste from burning coal to create energy, in massive pits in the ground called coal ash ponds.

Coal ash contains a long list of chemicals such as arsenic, boron and molybdenum, which can lead to cancer, neurological damage and child developmental problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As the ash mixes with water in ponds that average 20 feet deep, it can seep into groundwater that spreads underground for miles through natural water tables and aquifers. A recent report by environmental nonprofits found that 91 percent of coal-fired power plants have contaminated the groundwater beneath them.

Schuba is among many who have been demanding that utility companies remove all the ash to prevent it from seeping further into important water resources.

“These sites need to be cleaned up once and for all because nobody should have to live next to this,” Schuba said. “And even if you don’t, what in 50 years of that material will be down in St. Louis? And then you know, you may be consuming it at a low dose over a whole lifetime.”

National history

In 2008, the first major coal ash spill in America happened in Kingston, Tennessee. More than 5 million cubic yards of coal ash spilled into the Emory River. It was the largest industrial spill in American history.

The Labadie plant houses 15 million cubic yards of ash.

Six years after the Kingston spill, another in Eden, North Carolina, pushed the EPA to create the first federal coal ash regulations. Those rules, which were finalized in April 2015, required utility companies to test the groundwater near ash ponds and landfills and to post the results publicly.

Environmental groups including the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club collected data from 265 coal plants, 550 individual coal ponds or landfills, and 4,600 groundwater monitoring wells across the nation. Their report, “Coal’s Poisonous Legacy,” released in March, found that groundwater at 52 percent of coal plants contains unsafe levels of arsenic, and that groundwater at 60 percent of those plants contains unsafe levels of lithium.

Kim Arcelona and her daughter Naomi, 8, live within sight of the Labadie Energy Station

Kim Arcelona and her daughter Naomi, 8, live within sight of the Labadie Energy Center. “We don’t drink the water,” Kim said. Instead, they have water delivered to their house every month: 10 five-gallon bottles they use for drinking and cooking. Any well water they do use gets boiled beforehand, and they opt to shower instead of sitting in a bath. Ameren says there is no direct exposure to impacted groundwater, and the surrounding rivers and streams all comply with groundwater and drinking water standards.

For decades, coal ash has been stored in ash ponds, many of which lie in flood plains or in water tables where groundwater can flow through the ponds into nearby wells, aquifers or rivers. For many small communities across the nation, clean groundwater is an essential resource for drinking water.

“It’s abundantly clear that coal ash is poisoning groundwater across the country, and it’s also clear that the industry could afford to stop doing it,” said Abel Russ, senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project and the main author of the report.

Russ spent a year sifting through thousands of pages of documents from sites across the country to find data and compile it into understandable information. He and others worry about the legacy coal ash will leave, especially if the ash ponds aren’t cleaned up.

The day after utilities publicly released their testing data in March 2018, the EPA under the Trump administration proposed revisions to the federal rules. The changes allowed states to regulate coal ash and cease groundwater testing; expanded by 18 months the time frame for closing ponds that leak; weakened drinking water protections on lead, cobalt, lithium and molybdenum; and allowed state officials rather than engineers to decide whether sites are in compliance.

“These amendments provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash, while ensuring human health and the environment are protected,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a July statement. “Our actions mark a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all policies of the past and save tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs.”

Schuba testified in front of the EPA in Washington shortly after those revisions were proposed, alongside other environmentalists who worried that rollbacks on the Coal Ash Rule would weaken the protections in place. By August, environmental petitioners won the lawsuit against the EPA, which challenged the revisions and required the EPA to create stronger protections. It simultaneously denied industry petitions for less stringent regulations.

“The court didn’t give EPA detailed instructions as to the changes that must be made,” Maxine Lipeles, director of Washington University’s Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic, said. “It mostly says that what you did was unlawful. Go back and rewrite the regulations to make them lawful.”

Since the court hearing in August, the EPA’s 2018 revisions remain in force. EPA said in an email that it is “currently reviewing all of the remaining matters raised in litigation and in the petitions for reconsideration.”

Patricia Schuba, right, and Elgin Wilson look out over the Labadie Energy Station

Patricia Schuba, right, and Elgin Wilson look out over the Labadie Energy Center on May 4, 2019, in Labadie, Missouri. While there, Schuba tried out an emissions measuring device.

Missouri regulations

After states were given the authority to write their own coal ash regulations, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources released its proposal in February. The rules, which remain under review, would remove requirements for utilities to post groundwater testing data, pond clean-up plans, inspection reports and closure and post-closure plans. They would also allow utilities to leave ash in ponds as long as the water isn’t being used for drinking.

The EPA sent a letter to the Department of Natural Resources in March, saying the state must add some protections. For example, it said the “use of clay liners is inconsistent with the August 2018 court decision.”

Greg Snellen, the environmental supervisor for the natural resources depatment, said that while drafting the new rules, the department didn’t want to have a “blanket statement” apply to each utility since coal ash removal might “not be necessarily applicable” in every situation.

Snellen says the department is thinking of “situations where there is not potential for the movement of groundwater.”

Snellen said that because the rules his agency drafted are so long, the EPA missed some things. He said the department will probably have a conversation with the EPA.

“Part of our job will be to explain where this or that particular provision are at in the rule,” he said.

On March 21, people from across Missouri gathered in the Lewis and Clark state office building in Jefferson City to discuss the regulations. Executives, environmentalists, professors, advocates and citizens filled the room. Of the 25 people who testified about the proposed regulations, 20 strongly opposed them and five — all representatives of energy companies — spoke in support.

Through word of mouth, social media and community outreach, LEO collected 606 signatures on a petition from people who oppose the regulations, and it presented them at the hearing. The Sierra Club also organized a petition, bringing in over 1,000 signatures.

Ella Alt, Schuba’s 12-year-old niece, testified that the rules won’t keep her community safe.

“We want you to protect our families and our water,” she said. “The ash ponds should be dug up and put in the landfill and the water cleaned up. We all drink well water, and many of us are scared that the pollution they have found will end up hurting us and our neighbors. Everyone who signed the LEO petition agrees you should change your regulations to protect people and the environment.”

Peter Goode, an environmental engineer for Washington University’s Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic, also spoke at the hearing. He’s been working on coal ash-related issues in Missouri for 10 years. He explained in an interview that ash ponds have been the easiest and cheapest way for companies to store ash.

Nancy Campbell can see the Labadie Energy Station from her home

Nancy Campbell can see the Labadie Energy Center from her home. She, her mother and her sister own a series of interconnected properties, where they raise goats, horses and an alpaca. The family considers themselves to be “Stewards of the Land.”

The U.S. has 953 ash ponds and 431 landfills; 735 ponds and 310 landfills are active, leaving 571 inactive ponds and 121 inactive landfills unregulated, according to the EPA.

“Historically, there haven’t been any regulations on these ash ponds, so utilities have been allowed to essentially dig holes in the ground and dump ash into them,” Goode said.

Goode, however, said the groundwater is not isolated.

“The pollutants can move through the groundwater and into nearby rivers, or into adjoining aquifers, potentially threatening public or private drinking water wells,” he said.

History of LEO

The Labadie Environmental Organization has been fighting Ameren’s coal ash storage for more than a decade. A women’s book club meeting was the forum for early concerns over Ameren’s decision to build a coal ash landfill in the flood plain.

The newly formed environmental group took Ameren to court, worried that building a waste site in a flood plain could be catastrophic. It was around that time that Schuba found the pig head in her yard and the spray paint on her car. Although she still doesn’t know who damaged her property, she thinks people wanted her to back down from the lawsuit and from advocating for change.

But she refused.

After four years, the parties settled out of court. LEO agreed to drop the lawsuit if Ameren agreed to its terms. Ameren got to build its landfill, but it had to build it 5 feet above the ground, and it had to agree to only put ash from the Labadie plant into it.

Schuba is president of LEO. She has bachelor’s degrees in biology, anthropology and dietetics, and she has had a long career in health care. For the past decade, her sole mission has been to educate and inspire people about the issues that her small community and many others around the nation face.

LEO hasn’t backed down yet. Now the group wants Ameren to remove two coal ash ponds in its community.

The Labadie power plant houses two coal ash ponds in addition to the landfill. One is 77 acres, and the other is 165 acres. The ponds combined hold 15 million cubic yards of coal ash. That’s enough to fill 4,589 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Groundwater at the site is being polluted by arsenic, boron, lithium and molybdenum, according to the Coal’s Poisonous Legacy report, which is based on Ameren’s data. The levels of arsenic, one of the most common coal ash pollutants, are three times the federal limits for groundwater.

Arsenic causes multiple forms of cancer and neurological damage to children, the EPA says.

People living next to unlined ponds have a one-in-50 chance of getting cancer from drinking arsenic, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility.

“Without a doubt, the byproduct from that plant is heavy metals, and heavy metals hurt people,” said Jerry Friedman, board member of LEO and a retired pediatrician. “What should be of greater concern for a community — the public health or the financial well-being of a company?”

Although groundwater testing at Ameren plants has shown excessive levels of contaminants, the company says it isn’t harming the environment or public health because no one is drinking the polluted water.

“There is no direct exposure to impacted groundwater, and the surrounding rivers and streams all comply with groundwater and drinking water standards,” Craig Giesmann, environmental services manager for Ameren Missouri, said in a statement.

Ameren, the largest utility company in Missouri, altogether owns 18 different power-generating facilities, including coal-fired, nuclear, hydroelectric and renewable. Among its four coal-fired power plants, including the one in Labadie, the company has 15 ash ponds and two coal ash landfills.

Ameren has vowed to close all its ash ponds by 2023, but the ash won’t be removed. Instead, the ponds would be covered. Community groups say that will allow toxins from the ash to continue seeping into groundwater for decades to come. They want the ash excavated and moved into a lined landfill.

Because all four of Ameren’s ponds have tested positive for contamination levels above the EPA standard, the utility must provide a report for “corrective measures.” The report, which Ameren plans to publish later this year, will “address the merits” of removing the coal ash waste. The company believes removing the waste would create “exorbitant and unnecessary” costs and carry other environmental risks.

“It’s a social injustice that certain people in society have to assume the risk for someone else’s profit,” Schuba said.

The Labadie Energy Station overlooks the neighborhood of Lake Labadie Estates

The Labadie Energy Center overlooks the neighborhood of Lake Labadie Estates. Labadie is a town in Franklin County, near the Missouri River, and has a population of 3,039.

Keeping up the fight

Labadie, a town of 3,000 people, sits among rolling hills lined with vineyards, vast oak trees and quaint historic homes. St. Charles County’s Klondike Park is across the Missouri River from Labadie. The sounds of the river rushing by and kids laughing fill the ears of onlookers who peer out across the river bottoms at the plant’s gray smokestacks.

Beneath the roads and grassy hills, water flows naturally through underground water tables and aquifers. The alluvial aquifer sits in flood plains that stretch across Missouri from St. Louis to Kansas City, providing water for 25 counties including cities such as Columbia and Kansas City.

Hundreds of feet below the alluvial aquifer, the Ozark aquifer sustains Labadie’s water needs. Private and public wells across Missouri are drilled deep enough to go further than the water tables and into the existing aquifer. Although surface water and groundwater have often been understood and regulated as distinct categories, surface water seeps downward into these waterways, which can flow for hundreds of miles underground.

Schuba is so worried about groundwater polluting aquifers that she had a filtration system installed for her family’s private well. Both the well and the filtration system go 600 feet into the Ozark aquifer below her home and filter out heavy metals.

While she has chosen to install a pricey system to help ensure safe water for her family, many of her neighbors can’t afford to do the same. Most people use filters on their faucets, but chemicals can still seep through.

Tyler Baumgarth is a Labadie-based cattle farmer

Tyler Baumgarth is a Labadie-based cattle farmer. He has lived in the area since 2010 and began raising cattle in 2015. Before hearing about it from Patricia Schuba, he didn’t know about potential pollution in the groundwater from coal ash ponds at Ameren’s Labadie Energy Center. “We use the well for everything — me, the cows, the wife,” Baumgarth said.

Schuba has been fighting for what she says would be proper closure of the ponds, which would require utility companies to remove all the ash and prevent it from percolating into the water.

Leaving Labadie, she said, isn’t an option.

“This is home,” Schuba said. “Home to generations of my family and our family’s friends. It is a community, not just a place, not just where my house is. It has always been home — my touchstone.”

To Schuba, the only way to ensure change is by fighting the status quo. She has participated in so many public hearings, lawsuits, petitions and rallies alongside other LEO members that she has trouble keeping track. She’s adamant about securing safe drinking water for future generations.

Russ thinks avoiding polluted groundwater is a flawed approach: “Clean drinking water is a scarce resource, and people may want to use it in the future, and if it’s full of coal ash constituents they won’t be able to,” Russ said.

A lingering problem

The coal ash problem is widespread. Ten of 11 power plants in Missouri are polluting groundwater, as well as 230 other sites across the nation, according to the Coal’s Poisonous Legacy report.

EPA regulations require monitoring only at active ponds or landfills. That means only 66 percent of plants in the U.S. have to test groundwater, while 135 plants don’t, leaving communities to wonder if their water is safe, according to the report.

“There’s this idea that to me is automatic — we should be protecting these resources for future generations,” Russ said. “EPA modeling shows that if you don’t do anything about these coal ash ponds, the level of these pollutants will continue to increase for decades and even hundreds of years, so the worst levels of contamination haven’t happened yet.”

The EPA conducted a lengthy coal ash risk assessment in 2014. It concluded that putting coal ash into ponds and landfills “poses risks to human health and the environment.”

The report also confirmed what environmentalists have been saying for decades: that coal ash can leach, or drain away, from the ponds into nearby groundwater and travel underground into aquifers and wells.

“We have to care about this issue because we’re talking about our very existence and the existence of future generations to come,” Friedman, the LEO member, said.

Water is being depleted globally at a rapid rate. An estimated 1.8 billion people will be living in water-scarce areas within the next six years, according to the United Nations. Groundwater makes up around half the drinkable water on the planet.

“Things are going to gradually get worse, and so what that means is the risks will increase over time, and these groundwater aquifers are going to be off limits for human use for several generations,” Russ said.

If the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ proposed regulations were to pass, the coal industry in Missouri would be allowed to continue in the same fashion it has for decades.

In Missouri, coal has become more expensive than other energy resources that don’t require waste sites, Missouri Sierra Club Director John Hickey said. The solution moving forward, he said, is to move to 100 percent clean energy. If coal ash isn’t generated, then utility companies don’t have to figure out where to put the waste, and people don’t have to worry about pollution in their communities.

“Coal ash is a toxic waste being spread around Missouri, and we have better, cheaper options. We don’t have to do this,” Hickey said.

Hickey said Ameren has lobbyists who fight on its behalf. The public, he said, must be willing to engage and advocate for change.

“Don’t get mad, get even,” he said. “Do something about it, get involved.”

This story was produced in cooperation with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting by students in a spring 2019 Investigative Reporting class at the University of Missouri School of Journalism taught by associate professor Sara Shipley Hiles.

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