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Court Cases Could Come Down to the Wire for Coal Ash Landfill Opponents

Megan Lynch @MLynchOnAir
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CBS St. Louis (con't)

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Labadie, Mo. (KMOX) – It’s the 11th hour for opponents of a coal ash landfill planned less than an hour away from St. Louis.

“My thought is, we’re in a better place than ever right now to actually stop this landfill,” says Patricia Schuba, President of the Labadie Environmental Organization.  As of this week, the group’s four year legal battle now sits in two courts:  a circuit court basically being asked to rule on whether Ameren Corporation’s plans to store the byproduct of burning coal, violate a Franklin County ordinance on contact with groundwater; and the Missouri supreme court, asked by an appellate panel to rule on whether citizens were given fair hearings at the very start of the process.  All this at a time when the Missouri Department of Natural Resources is poised to give the final decision on whether Ameren can start construction at the Labadie power plant.
Schuba hopes DNR waits until the court issues are resolved and new federal rules on coal ash finalized.  “That’s the prudent and smart thing to do and then I’ll think we’ll get the best decision we can possibly get.”   Yet there’s a difference of opinion on when state regulators are required to make their decision.  Because there have been amendments to the original construction permit application, Schuba believes the state has until early next year to make the call.   Ameren Corporation Vice President of Environmental Services, Mike Menne, tells KMOX the decision will likely come much sooner.   Menne says the utility has met its requirements and so have Franklin County officials.
On the issue of groundwater to be considered by a circuit court, the county ordinance says the landfill has to sit two feet above the natural water table.  In late June the Franklin County Board of Zoning Adjustment denied an appeal by the Labadie Environmental Organization that argued Ameren’s design didn’t comply.  Both LEO’s Schuba and Ameren’s Menne say virtually the same thing, but have very different takes on what fulfills the intent of the rule.
Schuba: “Ameren clearly states in their construction permit to the state it would be in intermittent contact with groundwater,” which Schuba believes is unacceptable.
Menne: “They [engineers] determined that, yes indeed, we did design this landfill to be two feet above that water table, I think it was 95 percent of the time, ” which Menne says meets requirements.
A hearing could come later this summer.
The issue before the Missouri Supreme Court could take much longer.   Earlier this week an appellate panel ruled Franklin County Commissioners didn’t give residents a fair hearing at the time new regulations for utility landfills were being considered.  Instead of kicking the issue back down to a lower court, the judge asked the state’s highest court to consider the issue.
Patricia Schuba says at those hearings, citizens were not allowed to comment specifically on a landfill at the Labadie Power Plant.  “When people wanted to speak about that, the commissioners and their attorney said you cannot speak about the Labadie proposal, because there is no proposal.  Well there was a proposal.  It was already put together and the state knew about it.”
Ameren’s Mike Menne has a different take.  “There were at least five public hearings on this in Franklin County.  We feel that they had fair treatment in terms of brining up their issues, and the county realized that when they made their decisions.  And we think that Supreme Court will probably end up seeing it the same way.”
Depending on the court’s schedule it could be next year before a decision is announced.
Coal ash made national headlines in 2008 when a retention pond in Tennessee failed and spilled five million cubic yards of coal sludge into a small town.   Then there was the more recent spill of tens of thousands of tons of the material into a major North Carolina river.
Experts say beyond the risk of coal ash ponds failing, there’s danger of toxic substances leaching into groundwater. 
The Labadie Power Plant currently stores tons of coal waste in ponds on it’s site next to the Missouri river. 
Ameren says its
new landfill would be state of the art, with multiple liners, a water collection system, and technology to turn the ash into a concrete-like solid.
Citizens fear the site could still be susceptible to seepage.
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