LABADIE (AP) - A coal ash pond next to an Ameren Corp. power plant in Labadie has been spilling up to 35 gallons of toxic coal waste for two decades, raising concerns in the eastern Missouri town.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Thursday that state records show the pond has been leaking since 1992. There is no evidence the leak has made its way into groundwater or affected drinking water, but critics say neither the state nor the St. Louis-based utility has ever tested the area for contamination.
"The government hasn't required Ameren to do anything," said Maxine Lipeles, co-director of the Washington University Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic. The clinic represents the Labadie Environmental Organization in opposing a new, 400-acre coal ash landfill at the site.
Renee Bungart of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources said the agency has not monitored the site because the law doesn't require it. The DNR has required groundwater monitoring at ash disposal sites since 1997 and is revisiting how it regulates older coal waste impoundments.
Still, the Post-Dispatch said the DNR has the legal authority to monitor the groundwater but hasn't, even though it learned of the leaks from Ameren 19 years ago, according to utility filings with the DNR.
Ameren believes there is no environmental threat. But because of concerns, and because the Environmental Protection Agency has asked the company to monitor the leaks, Ameren will make repairs to the ash pond by the end of the year, said Mike Menne, Ameren's vice president of environmental services.
Members of the Labadie Environmental Organization cite dozens of coal ash contamination cases across the country and say they fear the worst.
Most recently, the Tennessee Valley Authority Office of Inspector General reported that coal ash has contaminated groundwater at eight of nine sites where tests were conducted in Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. In 2007, a report from the EPA identified 63 sites in 26 states where the water was contaminated by heavy metals from coal ash dumps.
In 2008, coal ash sludge escaped an impoundment in Kingston, Tenn. Some 3 million cubic yards eventually spilled into a river. The disaster compelled an EPA review of coal ash disposal sites across the country, and ultimately a proposed rule to regulate coal waste disposal.
In Labadie, a report prepared by Robert Criss, a Washington University professor, identified several dozen private wells along the bluffs near Labadie Bottoms that could be at risk of contamination. The report said contaminants could make their way into drinking water for residents of the town.
The waste is created from burning coal to create electricity. Waste at Labadie's ash ponds is composed of fly ash, a fine powder that's captured by filters in the plant's stacks to reduce pollutants released into the air; and bottom ash, a coarser material that falls to the bottom of coal boilers.
Information provided by Ameren to the DNR indicates the 154-acre ash pond has two leaks. One flows at a rate of up to 5 gallons a minute and leaks into Labadie Creek. The other releases up to 30 gallons a minute. Combined, that's the equivalent of more than 50,000 gallons of water escaping the ponds each day - nearly 350 million gallons over 19 years.
Water from the larger leak is contained on Ameren property by a raised road bed encircling the plant and preventing any runoff. Menne said it will be repaired by installing a trench that will allow water that escapes the ash pond to drain back.
Menne said the leakage is a small fraction of the millions of gallons discharged from the ash ponds into Labadie Creek daily. He said it is unlikely contaminants would reach deep enough or spread far enough in the direction of homes and farms to pose a health threat.
Lipeles disputes that, and said testing would find out.
"Let them do a thorough analysis of the groundwater at the site, and characterize it and present that to the public and say, "See, you have nothing to worry about,"' Lipeles said.