ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis area is surrounded by four toxic waste pits that hold coal ash. From arsenic to mercury, the pits contain poisons near our rivers.
Environmental groups say Ameren’s records show their pollutants are exceeding safe levels. Ameren, on the other hand, says they are not polluting our water supply and that their families live in the same communities, so they also want safe drinking water.
The pits hold the toxic waste left over after burning coal. All of them are next to main water sources, like the Sioux plant which is near where the Mississippi and Missouri rivers meet.
Patricia Schuba, president of the non-profit Labadie Environmental Organization, contends Ameren is not doing enough to protect us from contaminants.
“Coal-fired power plants depend on a lot of water to be operational,” said Schuba. “So, historically they’ve been built on our rivers and streams.”
Schuba said the contaminants are underground and can come in contact with groundwater.
“It’s like taking a teabag and putting it in water,” said Schuba. “It’s steeping in water, in the tea, then ends with toxins in it that are water-soluble sitting in the water for decades. That is eventually going to move off-site.”
Washington University Environmental Engineer Peter Goode says we’ve only recently seen more extensive water testing after the 2008 Kingston, Tennessee, disaster. A power plant dike ruptured, pouring billions of gallons of toxic coal ash into the Emory River.
“The EPA kind of woke up to the hazards it was posing, and they proposed the first-ever coal ash regulations, and those were adopted in 2015,” said Goode. “So, while coal ash has been contaminating groundwater for many decades, the EPA just kind of got on it in the last decade recognizing the threat that it really posed.”
Goode tracks water tests. He said Boron contamination is now 20 to 30 times the state groundwater standards, and Arsenic contamination is “the highest we’ve seen and 25 times the federal drinking water standard.”
Ameren says the contaminants are not reaching our water supply. The company also responded to the teabag analogy with a PowerPoint slide that shows coal ash pits above groundwater. It’s from a 2019 study that found 99% of the groundwater flows under the coal ash pits.
“Right now, we’re standing on the old ash basin at our Rush Island Energy Center,” said Craig Giesmann, the senior manager for environmental services at Ameren. “What you’re seeing right now is the ash is below us, it’s in a real concrete-like manner. It’s in a concrete state. On top of it is a high-density polyethylene liner. On top of that is what many people commonly refer to as astroturf.”
Giesmann said Ameren has conducted several studies, which indicate the water is safe.
“We’ve had independent experts look at the water bodies on the river, on the creeks and rivers,” said Giesmann. “We live and work in these communities, our children go to school in these communities, and we’ve made a commitment to be environmental stewards.”
Ameren is building a new water treatment center, which is now under construction on the edge of the ash pit.
“It’s industry-leading,” said Giesmann. “We’re unaware of any other facility that is treating groundwater in this manner again, we’ve got upwards of 99% removal of any trace metals.”
Environmental groups say the best solution is to dig up coal ash pits and put the waste in new landfills with protective liners. Ameren says that’s not practical, and not necessary.