State, Ameren disagree on when Johnson Shut-Ins park could open

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A popular state park, washed out when a mountaintop reservoir collapsed in December 2005, could be sufficiently repaired to reopen to tourists in July, a utility company that operated the reservoir asserts.

But state park officials rejected the "Band-Aid fix" on Monday as a "potentially dangerous" solution that would turn off tourists with a less-than-fulfilling experience. Instead, the state is sticking with its decision to keep the park closed this summer.

The disagreement about when to reopen Johnson Shut-Ins State Park is the latest of many controversies to surface as St. Louis-based Ameren Corp. tries to settle its legal damages with the state.

On Monday, Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder toured the park and said that Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon was responsible for its continued closure because he has not decided whether to pursue criminal charges against Ameren.

Nixon spokesman Scott Holste responded that the attorney general's office just received the final investigation report April 20 from the Missouri State Highway Patrol and was still reviewing it. He declined to comment on any timeline for a decision.

Thomas Voss, the president and chief executive officer of Ameren's Missouri-based subsidiary AmerenUE, said Monday the company is not too concerned about criminal charges, for which it believes there is no basis. Of greater concern is a legal settlement over civil damages.

The Department of Natural Resources, overseen by Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, has proposed that Ameren pay more than $125 million to the state to settle all claims over the collapse. But Nixon is suing the company, and the lawsuit does not specify the amount of damages being sought.

With that legal issue pending, Ameren said in a letter last week to DNR director Doyle Childers that it could have the park ready for visitors by July 1 by removing additional sediment and debris from the Black River.

The letter, provided Monday to The Associated Press by the DNR, offered to supply private security guards to ensure people don't dive into dangerous areas. Ameren also suggested portable trailers could be used for showers and trucks could bring in clean water and remove wastewater, because permanent water and sewage systems aren't in place.

"We think it could be used this summer, could be enjoyed -- we offered that," Voss said in an interview.

Childers, in a letter sent Monday to Ameren, demanded the company immediately begin implementing a park master plan for redevelopment -- something that Ameren contends goes beyond a mere restoration of the park. The plan, for example, includes a visitor center, a tourist overlook of the damaged area and relocated roads and camping facilities.

"We will restore the park to the original configuration without any settlement. But enhancements, that's when we think we need a settlement discussion," Voss said.

Childers' letter said Ameren's proposal amounted to a "last-minute, Band-Aid fix" for a limited park use that's "a potentially dangerous and substandard experience for our park visitors."

The park reopened temporarily last summer partly so tourists could see the disaster area. But Ameren's plan for this summer could do more harm than good, said the department's deputy director, Kurt Schaefer.

"It would be the Griswold family vacation -- people picnicking next to an aboveground sewage tank while it's being pumped out," Schaefer said. "You're talking about people who are going to have a bad experience and never come back there."

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