About four years ago, news that Ameren, the company that provides power to 1.2 million customers across Missouri, purchased 1,200 acres of land in the Missouri floodplains caught the attention of a local women’s book club in Labadie, Missouri, a small community located in the Missouri River floodplain. The purpose of this transaction was to build a 400-acre, 100-foot tall coal combustion waste landfill. The women were reminded of the Tennessee Valley Authority coal fly ash slurry spill, an event where more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry spilled due to a disrupted retention pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant. The spill polluted the Emory River and covered 300 acres of land in toxic sludge, which included 12 homes and damaged hundreds of properties. With this spill in mind, members of the book club began to question the safety of building such a hazardous site in the floodplain, locally known as “the bottoms.” What began as a small group of concerned citizens transformed into a community-wide call to action with the establishment of Labadie Environmental Organization (LEO). Since 2009, LEO has protested the coal ash landfill, participated in multiple public hearings, and formed the “Campaign to Save Our Bottoms.”
Companies such as Ameren assert that landfills designed to hold coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal, are safe and durable, but LEO, the people of Labadie, and inhabitants of the surrounding area are concerned about its effect on the bottoms. Ameren’s representatives have argued that the landfill would be an improvement over its current wet storage methods, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), dry landfills can also pose dangers to local drinking water and aquatic life. If the landfill were to be compromised, heavy metals in the coal ash such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic could enter the floodplain. The EPA conducted a study that demonstrated that coal ash leached arsenic at up to 18,000 parts per billion. This is 1,800 times the federal drinking water standard and over 3 times the hazardous waste threshold. One report of 31 coal ash sites found 26 sites contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins exceeding drinking water standards. It was found that some sites can contained waters with as much as 90 times the drinking water standard for arsenic. Even beyond the boundaries of the dumping ground, arsenic levels can be as high as 31 times the drinking water standard, and contaminated water has been known to carry over a mile away from the original coal ash dump site.
There are serious health concerns for ingesting water containing heavy metals resulting from coal ash leaching, such as an increased risk for cancer from arsenic. The groundwater in the floodplain is especially vulnerable to contamination because water levels tend to rise and fall seasonally, which means metals could also seep into the water table, polluting the groundwater. As a result, this could endanger the floodplain ecosystem, which includes wildlife, farmers, and locals who rely upon groundwater from drinking wells. The condition of the floodplain plays a vital role in the region’s ecosystem, economy, and public health.
Determined to stand up for its community’s well being, LEO took legal action against these risks at their first hearing on December 14, 2010. The community urged Franklin County to oppose a proposition to change the county’s zoning code. The change would have allowed the construction of a coal ash landfill in an area that previously banned landfills. One of LEO’s earliest accomplishments involved catching the attention of the EPA and delaying the landfill’s construction process.
LEO works in solidarity with other organizations that share similar environmental goals. On a local scale, Labadie communicates with other towns in Franklin County. LEO has been collaborating with other towns to discuss creating a trail to connect the floodplains in Chesterfield with the Katie Trail with the goal of preserving the area for future generations. Groups within Washington University in St. Louis have also been a key component of LEO’s efforts. Attorneys from Washington University’s Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic have represented LEO’s case. Furthermore, LEO has received lots of support from the Sierra Club – one of the United State’s largest and most influential environmental organizations. With help from groups like the Sierra Club, LEO has been able to launch its message onto a more global platform.
LEO’s efforts have not only stifled many attempts that Ameren has made to obtain approval for constructing the coal ash landfill, but they have also managed to bring together a politically diverse community. According to LEO’s president, Patricia Schuba, trust built over the last five years within the community has been critical to the success of protesting such a large and politically powerful company. With water and community health on the line, the people of Labadie have set aside political differences to stand together in defense of the floodplains. It is LEO’s hope to not only represent Labadie’s environmental concerns, but also pave the way for other communities now and in the future that are fighting similar battles. As Ms. Schuba said, “That’s what scares the Amerens of the world…We don’t fight for a paycheck, we fight for our children.”
Another version of this article is published through Material Monsters’ “The 2014 Missouri Exhibit: A Look at Agency Here at Home.” For more information about the project and to read this article and more like it, please visit http://www.2014missouriexhibit.org/