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Are toxins in coal ash posing risks to nearby communities?

The U.S. each year produces more than 100 million tons of coal ash, a toxic substance made when coal is burned for electricity. Much of that waste is kept in active storage units around the country, where it can potentially leach into the groundwater and major waterways. Ivette Feliciano reports from one of these facilities in Missouri as part of our climate change series, "Peril & Promise."

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Tonight, we're continuing our special series examining the impact of climate change on states bordering the Mississippi River.

    Yesterday, we brought you stories from Minnesota and Iowa. Today we travel from Missouri to Louisiana with reporting on the environmental and economic hazards of rising waters.

    We begin in Labadie, Missouri, where one of those hazards is coal ash, the residue created when coal is burned. The U.S. produces more than 100 million tons of coal ash each year, and storing it carries the potential for toxic materials leaching into groundwater.

    NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano has our story. This special series is part of our initiative: Peril and Promise: the Challenge of Climate Change, and is produced in partnership with Nexus Media News, a non-profit news organization.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Labadie, Missouri, a town of just over three thousand, sits on the southern bank of the Missouri River. A notable sight is the Labadie Power Plant—the largest coal burning plant in the state. It's owned by Ameren–Missouri's biggest energy supplier. In burning coal, the plant produces a byproduct: coal ash. Both the plant and the ash stand in what's called a floodplain—an area next to a river or stream that is prone to flooding during storms. That's a point of concern for some here, because coal ash is known to contain heavy metals–like arsenic, chromium, and lead–which can cause cancer, respiratory disease, and cardiovascular disease in humans.

  • Patricia Schuba:

    Earlier this year, there was at least ten to 15 feet of water standing at this location. So imagine that over this entire area.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Patricia Schuba is a resident of Labadie and the founder of the grassroots non-profit, Labadie Environmental Organization.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Does the location of these coal ash sites concern you?

  • Patricia Schuba:

    It absolutely does. Because floodplains are used for filtering water. And so to have that waste that contains heavy metals and carcinogens sitting in the water table is really not good.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    When it opened in 1970, the Labadie Power Plant stored coal ash in basins—called ash ponds—dug next to the plant. The ash in one of those ponds has been in contact with the groundwater beneath for almost 50 years.

    Groundwater is held in a porous network of rocks beneath the earth's surface called an aquifer. Ameren says the groundwater found beneath the Labadie plant is not used for drinking water, and the Environmental Protection Agency has separate contamination standards for groundwater beneath a public utility, and groundwater used for drinking. Ameren's reports indicate that most of the contaminants in the groundwater beneath the ash ponds fall within the EPA standards for utility companies.

    In 2016, Ameren built a 166-acre coal ash landfill on the other side of the plant from the ponds. The landfill is lined at the bottom to protect against contaminating the groundwater beneath it. Both the ponds and the landfill are surrounded by large berms that protect them from flood waters. But Schuba worries that rising water levels could eventually top those berms, spreading toxins from the ash away from the plant and towards residential water sources.

  • Patricia Schuba:

    With climate change increasing the risk of significant storms, rainfalls, flash floods, and flooding in our floodplains over weeks and sometimes months, the risk is that that material will be in contact with our drinking water all the time. And that means that we're at risk of being exposed to those coal waste toxins that clearly can cause disease.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Labadie and the rest of the St. Louis area sit at the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi–the two longest rivers in the us. The area is highly susceptible to flooding from these and their smaller tributaries.

    Robert Criss is a hydrogeologist at St. Louis's Washington University. He says that groundwater plays a big role in the area's floods.

  • Robert Criss:

    When it rains, you see the rivers go up, especially the small streams. Well, you—you think that's the immediate rainfall, this notion of overland flow. And sometimes that's true. But a really large component of that flow is displaced groundwater, that's been in the system a long time. So it rains, and you push out the old water.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In addition to the Labadie plant, Ameren owns and operates three other coal plants in the region. All are built and store coal ash along floodplains—either in ponds or solid waste landfills.

    Criss says that storing coal ash in a floodplain puts the area's aquifer at great risk.

  • Robert Criss:

    The groundwater in the alluvial floodplains responds on a daily basis to the water level in the river. The water can come and go. It can move—more than 100 yards a day, and any percolating waste will get into the water and—move it out through the aquifer and so forth.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    And rivers having been rising more and more often in the St. Louis area. This past spring, the region was hit by its biggest flood in more than 25 years. Environmental scientists link the flooding to an increase in storms caused by climate change.

    Rachel Bartels heads the Missouri chapter of the Waterkeepers Alliance—an international organization that monitors the water quality of rivers and streams.

  • Rachel Bartels:

    St. Louis and, I think, the Midwest in general has always had somewhat erratic weather. But it has definitely—the storms have increased. And the intensity of the storms has increased, as well. You know, we've had major flooding events in the last few years. They—you know, they're called 100-year floods for a reason.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Between March and July last year, water levels near the Labadie plant rose by almost 20 feet. Bartels and members of her group took aerial photos.

  • Rachel Bartels:

    The coal plant was an island. You know, and knowing what we know about water, it just—I mean, you look at it, it was so—such a powerful reminder that it is not the place to be storing this toxic waste.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    But while flood waters did rise near the Labadie plant, they never topped the berms surrounding the coal ash. That's according to Warren Wood, Ameren's vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs.

  • Warren Wood:

    Fortunately, in our different basins, they've been designed with different perimeter berms. We have water treatment in the event any water does get into the basins. And here at Labadie, we haven't had any flooding that got into any of the basins. And so the berms have been, you know, performed as designed and we haven't had flooding in our basins.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In accordance with Environmental Protection Agency rules, Ameren uses independent consultants to monitor the groundwater around its property at wells like this one. In addition, Ameren's consultants analyze groundwater close to homes near the plant, as well as the surface water of the Missouri River that flows next to it. It says none of its samples exceed the EPA's groundwater protection standards.

  • Warren Wood:

    We didn't have any impacts of groundwater on any of the—the groundwater checks around our property boundary or in the river or in the surface water in the area. The only hits were a few of the wells in the immediate vicinity of the basins where we did have some—some metal that we detected.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    But Robert Criss is skeptical of those findings.

  • Robert Criss:

    It's a biased result if your own paid consultants are doing the work.

  • Warren Wood:

    Ameren stands by its consultants' findings and says it plans to cap all its ash ponds in the St. Louis region to protect them against future floods. Regardless, hydrogeologist Robert Criss says that the groundwater beneath the plant may be beyond saving.

  • Robert Criss:

    If you pollute groundwater, there is no way to ever clean it up. 'Cause you've polluted your canteen. And so when we misuse our floodplains, and our—our aquifers, we—we are robbing our future in ways that we cannot imagine.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    But Warren Wood believes that Ameren's plan will reduce contaminants in the groundwater beneath the ash ponds. He also says that capping the ponds and leaving them in place is the safest option in the long run.

  • Warren Wood:

    If you go to an excavation approach, you're looking at up to three decades and you're gonna leave these basins open that entire time for more water filtration to potentially pick up metals and move into the groundwater.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Wood told NewsHour Weekend that Ameren's coal ash facilities are built to withstand what he terms "a massive flood event".

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Last week, North Carolina announced an agreement with Duke Energy to excavate and remove nearly 80 million tons of coal ash. The state says it will be the largest such clean-up in American history.

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