By Patricia Schuba

I was born in 1963 in Labadie, three miles from what is now the nation's 14th largest coal-fired plant. My family has farmed the land for four generations. It was only when Ameren placed a coal ash landfill in the floodplain that we became aware of the risks of burning coal and of exposure to the waste left behind.

In 1970, Ameren built the plant that is still operating today in the floodplain of the Missouri River just east of Labadie on a scenic stretch of the lower Missouri River. Little did we all know that almost immediately after the plant was built, the utility began dumping toxic wet ash into an open 154 acre unlined pond, and from there into the Missouri River. This stretch of river floods and the groundwater is often above the surface, making contamination of surrounding soil and water likely.

We now know, from reviewing public records that this pond was leaking 50,000 gallons per day since 1992. Ameren claims to have recently stemmed the leaks, including new ones that were reported in 2011. We also know that under its water pollution permit, Ameren dumps an average of 25 million gallons per day of waste water from the ponds into the Missouri River.

All of Ameren's neighbors, including my family, depend on well water, and millions downstream get their drinking water from the Missouri River. Coal ash contains high concentrations of toxic chemicals like mercury, cadmium, arsenic, lead and hexavalent chromium. As a concerned citizen, I have tried to find out how much pollution has seeped into the groundwater from the leaking ponds in Labadie. Unfortunately, nobody knows, since Ameren does not do any groundwater monitoring, and the state does not require such monitoring -- even though the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has known since 1992 about the substantial leakage at the unlined coal ash pond.

Carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals being dumped and buried in Missouri's floodplains are endangering our drinking water on a large scale. Missouri has at least 32 coal ash waste sites, many of which are unlined. Missouri utilities produce 2.7 million tons of coal ash waste per year. A 2011 Earthjustice report listed Missouri in the 10 worst states in the country for regulating coal waste because of our lack of consistent regulation and monitoring. In Missouri, utilities can build coal ash ponds and landfills "in the water table" and are not always required to have composite liners -- making the health risks needlessly high. The coal ash ponds near my house are the most high profile cases of potential contamination in Missouri but only because citizens started asking questions. There are coal ash ponds and landfills across the state, in the counties of Jackson, Jasper, Greene, Randolph, St. Charles, Jefferson, Henry, New Madrid, Scott, Platte and Buchanan where we have no idea what is happening to groundwater. This is not just a problem in one part of Missouri and it affects us all. If you consume electricity, you are near a site where toxic coal ash is being dumped.

Recent reports show that when groundwater monitoring occurs at ash pond sites, potentially dangerous levels of coal waste toxins are frequently found leaching into groundwater. In January, a new report by North Carolina officials found elevated levels of metals in groundwater near every coal ash pond. Iron and manganese were found at all 14 plants. Boron was found at six plants and highly carcinogenic chromium and arsenic at seven and six plants respectively. The findings have raised alarms that monitoring for all of the coal ash toxins should be required at all sites.

Missourians need DNR to require groundwater monitoring for coal ash toxins around all new and existing coal ash ponds and landfills immediately. The Missouri DNR should require utilities to clean-up all coal ash ponds and landfills that are leaking dangerous chemicals into surrounding soil, groundwater and surface water. Let's follow the principle -- if you break it, you fix it.

More importantly, let's not put bad stuff near the good stuff. Utilities should not be allowed to dump disease-causing chemicals into our floodplains, rivers and streams. The risk of heavy metals and toxic chemicals in our drinking water is playing a dangerous game with our health, environment and economy. I love my corner of Missouri here in Franklin County, as so many other Missourians do. Let's take the steps now to get coal ash out of our water and protect our floodplains, communities and local economies.
Schuba is president of Labadie Environmental Organization (LEO), a community nonprofit established in 2009 to oppose the siting of Ameren Missouri's proposed 400 acre coal ash landfill in the Missouri River floodplain and floodway near Labadie Missouri.

Copyright (C) 2012 by the Missouri Forum. 3/12