Editorial: Don’t Trust Fossil Fuel Power Plants With The Honor System

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I read on my local news today that regulators in Missouri, my home state, recently issued a new permit to a coal-fired power plant near St. Louis that explicitly allows the plant to pollute groundwater. of State.

According to Ameren Missouri, which operates the plant, and the state, which regulates it, there’s nothing wrong with that. In its previous operating permits, the state says, the Labadie Energy Center in Ameren in Franklin County, about 45 minutes west of St. Louis, was implicitly permitted to dump coal ash in the Missouri River, the city’s source of drinking water. Previous mining licenses had required Ameren to track the amount of coal ash flowing into groundwater, but did not explicitly prohibit such pollution; therefore, pollution was permitted.

“Where a permit contains monitoring requirements and no obvious prohibition on discharge has been included in the permit,” the Department of Natural Resources said in a statement, “the permit authorizes such discharge.” Changing the new permit to explicitly say “of course, feel free to throw coal ash in drinking water” was just an honest reflection of what the state had always intended.

For his part, Ameren also wants citizens to know that there is nothing to worry about. “We always want to do the right thing for the environment,” Craig Giesmann, Ameren’s director of environmental services, told St. Louis Public Radio. “We live and work in these same communities. This is very heartening news for me – I was certainly worried at first, given how often Ameren has asked for extensions to their deadline to stop dumping carcinogens into the water supply of other power plants around the world. Missouri, but, well, they sure wouldn’t want to do anything like that to their own communities, would they?

Xcel Energy’s Sherburne County Power Plant, a similar coal-fired power plant in Labadie, near Becker, Minnesota [Tony Webster, Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0]

The Labadee plant was the second largest producer of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide in the United States in 2020. As Ameren is quick to point out, its numbers do not violate Environmental Protection Agency standards. environment, some of which have been relaxed under the Trump administration. was not subsequently revised under Biden. (The EPA, unlike the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, took action against the Labadee plant and other coal-fired plants in the area, leading Ameren to close two other Missouri plants earlier than planned.) Labadie is the most polluting plant in the Region.

The Midwest as a whole is grappling with this problem – Missouri is the 18th most populous state but the second largest producer of sulfur dioxide, for example. But despite this, state authorities seem largely content to let Ameren and other coal-fired power plants operate on the honor system, rather than seize the opportunity to actually regulate.

“We all realize the influence this company has on state policy,” said Patricia Schuba, who leads a grassroots group of Franklin County residents, the Labadie Environmental Organization, according to STLPR. “At first, we were really hoping that by engaging with our state regulators, we could address these issues.” But the fact is that the current rules favor the fossil fuel industry, in part because that industry has managed to capture many of its regulators. That certainly seems to be the case in Missouri, where despite the best efforts of people like Schuba — people who actually live and work in these communities — plants remain poorly regulated.

Stories like these expose the inglorious truth of our environmental plight. Labadie may be one of the most polluting coal-fired plants in the country, but it is only one of approximately 250 such plants. The coal ash pits that seep into the water supply are there, but also in all these other communities. The same dynamic between corporate interests, the state, and the health and well-being of people and the lands they live on plays out in all of these communities as well.

The Missouri River near Rocheport, Missouri [Aimee Castenell, Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0]

These stories weigh on me as a pagan. My practice is heavy with reverence for the earthly beings and other nature spirits around me. For me, these beings are not transcendent or invisible: they are not supernatural manifestations of the earth on which I live, but the earth itself. I take seriously the idea that the Earth is a living entity. And to take this idea seriously is to understand that my spiritual life cannot be separated from my political life. If there are any land creatures, they are affected by the coal ash pits of Franklin County and the pollutants seeping into the great rivers on which all life around my home depends. If I believe that a reciprocal relationship is possible between human beings and the divinity of nature, then it must involve something more than pouring wine on the ground a few times a month.

It’s easy for journalists to fall into reporting on climate change in just a few ways: there are reactive stories about the loss and misery inflicted by a calamity like wildfires or tornadoes, which detail the costs of our inaction after the fact, and there are stories about the latest statistics from scientists and international agencies detailing just how huge the problem is.

But if there is to be a way forward, much of it will rely on local and regional reports like this one on Labadie, which monitor the concrete actions of activists, corporations and state actors who are creating the bigger picture. It’s a global catastrophe, but it affects us – and we can affect it back – in personal, even intimate ways.

As pagans, we owe it to ourselves and what we hold sacred to also pay attention to environmental stories on this local scale. These are the places where we have the greatest capacity to act, to defend ourselves and our spirits.

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