Labadie Plant
Labadie Plant courtesy of Ameren UE

Opponents of a proposed coal waste landfill in Labadie say the public should be leery of any groundwater tests that are not performed by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources or the Environmental Protection Agency.

The warning comes after Ameren Missouri, which operates the 40-year old coal-fired power plant in the Labadie bottoms, released lab results from monitoring wells placed near the facility which it says confirms that the groundwater near the plant is not contaminated.

Critics contend that the tests were not performed at the location where contamination would most likely be found.

An Ameren official said that the utility commissioned the tests, which were performed last month by an independent engineering company, in response to allegations in a lawsuit seeking to block a proposed 400-acre coal ash landfill that it wants to build near the plant.

Mike Menne, Ameren’s vice president of environmental safety and health, said that the company is going to conduct more groundwater tests at the plant and at the proposed landfill site.

But for now, he said, Ameren is focused on addressing the concerns of nearby property owners who allege the groundwater they use for drinking could be contaminated.

Ameren has asked the judge in the case for permission to test the groundwater of the plaintiffs in the case which include nine residential property owners who live near the proposed landfill site — some less than a mile away — and a couple who own a restaurant/bar in downtown Labadie.

Opponents of the landfill, who sued the county last November over its approval of a land use code amendment that would clear the way for Ameren to construct the landfill, argue that the legal issues in the lawsuit and possible contamination from leaking coal ash storage ponds currently in use at the plant are two separate issues.

“We are concerned that the public could be confused (over Ameren’s testing,)” Patrica Schuba, president of the Labadie Environmental Organization (LEO), one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in an interview this week. “The legal issues contained in the lawsuit and leaking contamination from an ash pond are two separate issues and should be treated as such. It’s great they decided to test, but if you are going to do it, do it right. They are testing in all the wrong places.”

Schuba said that the tests should have been performed at or near the ponds which have documented leaks or downstream from the ponds where the groundwater flows into the Missouri River. She also questioned the depth of the wells that were used and the testing methodology.

“It doesn’t make sense,” she said. The first order of business in (groundwater) testing is to look where the plume of contamination could be. Why aren’t the (monitoring) wells 50 feet from the ponds which have leaked for 20 years? It is something that the public should consider,” Schuba added.

Menne acknowledged the three testing wells were “some distance” from the plant but said their location was intentional and directly related to the litigation over the proposed landfill.

“The location of the monitoring wells was very specifically aimed at the allegations in the lawsuit,” Menne explained. “Our intention was not to perform extensive groundwater testing at the ash ponds, but to check the groundwater nearest to the property owners who filed suit and who were concerned about contamination. This was done as part of our legal defense, it was not done as a technical evaluation of the ponds.”

Ameren has alleged in court documents that the plaintiffs in the case, which include LEO, have made the quality of the groundwater an issue in the case without offering any evidence of contamination.

“The plaintiffs have waged a public campaign suggesting that the drinking water sources in the area are threatened by Ameren Missouri’s current and future operations,” the motion alleges in support of an order that would permit Ameren representatives to gain access to plaintiffs’ property to test and inspect groundwater wells.

Menne said that Ameren will be conducting more groundwater tests near the existing ponds and at the proposed landfill site as part of state and county permitting process for the proposed landfill. He said groundwater testing is shared and reviewed by Missouri Department of Natural Resources. He also stressed Ameren was committed to making the testing process transparent.

Schuba said that the groundwater at the proposed landfill site should be tested prior to construction to obtain baseline data for future tests. She said that the county’s land use regulation for utility landfills does not require groundwater testing as a precondition to obtaining a permit.

County officials dispute that interpretation. They say that if the county’s recently hired independent registered environmental engineers request groundwater testing at the landfill site prior to construction, it will be done.

“We are prepared to do whatever our engineers say even if it means going above what DNR or EPA requires,” John Griesheimer, Franklin County presiding commissioner, said.

“The bottom line is that we made a commitment to the public that we would err on the side of safety. If the engineers feel we need groundwater testing at the site prior to construction we are absolutely going to test. I don’t care what it costs or if Ameren objects. We are going to do whatever it takes to operate any landfill as safely as possible.”

Griesheimer said the county has retained Andrew Engineering and Cochran Engineering to serve as its independent environmental engineers. He said that engineers at Andrews are currently reviewing the county’s new utility landfill regulation. He said that the county has not received an application from Ameren for a utility landfill but if one is submitted the county can move forward with a design review and any site testing.

“We’re motivated by safety and that’s what we’ve instructed the engineers. They are going to advise us and we’ve let them know that if they feel a design change is needed to ensure the public’s safety, we are going to require it. We don’t care if Ameren doesn’t like it or what it costs. That is how we are going to operate. If LEO doesn’t believe that so be it. They challenge everything we do just like the tests we did on the fly ash. It’s OK if they do the tests. But if we do it, we are automatically suspect. We don’t work that way,” Griesheimer added.

County Counselor Mark Vincent, who helped draft the utility landfill regulation, said he didn’t see a legal issue with groundwater testing at the proposed landfill site.

“I can guarantee that the independent registered professional engineer now on board will mandate where testing is done and that tests will be performed before, during and after construction,” he said.