More’s Lake sits hidden behind mounds of coal ash in April 2017 at the Columbia Municipal Power Plant. The city is nearly finished transferring the ash from the lake to the landfill, a project that cost about $5 million. Photo by LUKE BRODARICK

The Columbia Municipal Power Plant toward the eastern end of Business Loop 70 is the oldest of three in the city. Historically, the smoke stack that towers above the plant released exhaust produced by the combustion of coal. The stack no longer spews smoke, though, because the plant stopped burning coal in 2015 and has switched to natural gas production.

Still, remnants of the plant’s coal-fired days remain. Inside the plant, two solid fuel units that used to burn coal are idle. And just north of the plant lies a large pit.

The pit, which decades ago was known as More’s Lake and was a popular fishing and gathering spot, looked very different four years ago, when it contained a mix of water and coal ash that plant workers dumped from the plant. Coal ash contains high levels of heavy metals such as arsenic and boron, which vary depending on the type of coal burned and the location.

The EPA classifies coal ash as a non-hazardous waste, but its independent studies link coal ash to health problems. A recent report from the Environmental Integrity Project compiled groundwater testing data from utilities across the nation and found unsafe levels of toxic pollutants at the majority of testing sites.

The EPA’s first and only Coal Ash Rule was finalized in 2015. It required coal-powered utilities to do groundwater monitoring and post it on the internet. Utilities also are required to make a plan for closing their ponds. The rule does not specify how closures should take place, but it generally happens in one of two ways: either the utility removes the waste from the pond, or it caps off the pond while the ash remains in place.

Many utilities choose the latter method because it’s cheaper, but not without opposition from groups such as the Sierra Club.

The city of Columbia chose to remove the ash, which the Sierra Club views as the “clean closure” method. Christian Johanningmeier, the city’s power production superintendent, said the utility chose this method because it couldn’t guarantee the coal ash would not harm groundwater.

The excavation has been ongoing since 2016 and is nearly done. The first step, Johanningmeier said, was to drain all the pond’s water. The ash was then removed and spread out to dry. The final step has been hauling the ash to the Columbia landfill.

“It’s taken a while to do, but there’s nothing about the project that’s particularly hard,” Johanningmeier said.

The project has cost the city close to $5 million, or about $100 per electric customer.

John Hickey, director of the Sierra Club’s Missouri chapter, supports clean closure. Covering the pond, he said, “just means the leaching of heavy metals continues.” He commended Columbia Water and Light for approaching the situation as it did.

“It’s as simple as … you made the mess, you clean it up,” Hickey said.

Columbia’s energy future

Columbia voters in 2014 passed a renewable energy ordinance that requires the city to purchase increasing levels of energy from renewable sources. This includes wind, solar and landfill gas energy. Last year, the city obtained 15.67 percent of its energy from renewable resources, exceeding its 15 percent goal for the year.

The city also owns and operates three energy facilities of its own. This includes the Municipal Power Plant and the Columbia Energy Center, which produce electricity using natural gas, and the Biomass Energy Plant that creates power from methane gas at the landfill. These plants produce about 10 percent of the city’s electricity.

While Columbia has been proactive about cleaning up its coal ash — cinders that it used to spread on icy and snowy streets in the winter — it still gets 70 percent to 80 percent of its energyfrom coal-fired power plants in the Midwest, and most of that comes from the Sikeston Power Plant in southeast Missouri and the Prairie State Energy Campus in Illinois.

The Sierra Club and other nonprofits recently compiled data from coal utilities across the nation to create a report called “Coal’s Poisonous Legacy.” It shows the water near the Prairie State Energy Campus has unsafe levels of pollutants, including arsenic and lead. It doesn’t appear the Sikeston plant has polluted groundwater.

The Columbia Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, which will be presented to the City Council in June, aims to reduce coal contracts in the city and invest in more renewable energy. The draft includes a goal of obtaining 100 percent of the city’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

“There’s confidence that we can meet that goal,” said Eric Hempel, energy educator for Columbia’s Office of Sustainability. “Not that it won’t be difficult and require some creative approaches.”

Hempel says the cost of implementing the goal, both for the consumer and the utility company, is one of the biggest issues the task force is looking into.

“An important part of the climate action plan is to consider how these actions affect traditionally marginalized or vulnerable populations,” he said.

The draft was open for public comment through May 10. Hempel said the addition of renewable energy could come from a number of places, but the city is seriously considering converting to both solar and wind energy.

This story was produced in cooperation with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting by students in a spring 2019 at the University of Missouri School of Journalism taught by associate professor Sara Shipley Hiles.

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