Ameren: Tired of playing 'political football' over Taum Sauk breach

Thursday, May 3, 2007

The DNR has said Johnson's Shut-Ins will be closed completely through 2007.

ST. LOUIS -- An Ameren Corp. vice president Wednesday accused the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the state Attorney General's office of playing "political football" while cleanup from the Taum Sauk reservoir breach languishes nearly 17 months after the accident.

Meanwhile, in Jefferson City, a state senator from Southeast Missouri and a school official from near the site of the disaster also criticized the political sniping over the reservoir collapse.

DNR director Doyle Childers was in St. Louis Wednesday to deliver another proposal to settle civil allegations against Ameren. He then spoke at a news conference at the entrance to Ameren's corporate headquarters.

At the end of the news conference, Richard Mark, Ameren's senior vice president for Missouri energy delivery, appeared and handed out toy plastic footballs to the media.

"This type of silliness has really hurt the taxpayers of Missouri," Mark said. "We're tired of being the political football in the middle."

During the news conference, Childers criticized the company's counterproposal to DNR's December plan to settle civil litigation over the breach. The chief point of contention: The Ameren plan called for a $10 million payment to Attorney General Jay Nixon's office, money Nixon could use "as he feels appropriate" toward cleanup, the company said. The company proposal also calls for an equal amount to the DNR.

But Childers called the payment to the attorney general's office a "slush fund" that Nixon could "hand out to his political cronies."

Childers was appointed by Republican Gov. Matt Blunt; Nixon, a Democrat, is seeking the governor's office in 2008. Both the DNR and Nixon's office are seeking to negotiate a settlement in the Taum Sauk case.

Nixon, in a telephone interview, called the DNR news conference a "circus" and "traveling road show."

"I'm doing my job here and the fact they are trying to make this political and demean the entire process shows a lack of professionalism on their side," Nixon said.

Blunt lauded the DNR proposal and denied playing politics.

"Clearly we're trying to resolve this in a way that benefits all Missourians, and not play political games with this really terrible natural disaster," Blunt said.

For years, Ameren generated electricity through its Taum Sauk hydroelectric plant, which sits atop Profitt Mountain in Southeast Missouri's Reynolds County. A breach of the plant's reservoir Dec. 14, 2005, spilled 1.3 billion gallons of water that rushed through Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park.

The park superintendent, his wife and three children were injured. The park was badly damaged, as was a fork of the Black River.

The park was open only for sightseeing last year, and DNR has said it will be closed completely through 2007, though Ameren officials believe the park could be reopened this year. The closure is proving costly to businesses in Reynolds County, a rural area that relies on visitors to the popular state park.

Ameren has taken responsibility for the accident and pledged to restore the river and the park.

Childers said DNR officials "fired" Nixon from civil negotiations after learning Nixon's campaign had accepted $20,000 in donations from Ameren. But Nixon's office has continued to maintain that it, and not DNR, should handle the civil case.

"If we're going to reach a settlement we need to know who we're going to negotiate with -- that's the bottom line," Mark said.

"Until the state agencies stop fighting with each other, we don't know who to talk to."

In an impassioned Senate speech Wednesday, with Lesterville students and teachers watching from a gallery, Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said it's crucial to get the matter settled soon -- or the school district in Lesterville risks having to close because the Ameren plant is a major part of its tax base.

"To have (Blunt and Nixon) use these people as pawns in their chess game is unbelievable," Engler said. "These kids and their school are on the endangered list. At the end of the year because of the inaction of our state, they don't know if they've got enough revenue to keep their school."

Lesterville schools superintendent Earlene Fox said Ameren pays about $500,000 annually in property taxes, supplying almost half the school's local taxes and a large chunk of its total $3 million budget.

Ameren has agreed to continue paying taxes as if the reservoir still existed through the end of this year. But unless there is a settlement, and reconstruction of the reservoir, the school has no guarantee of continued taxes from Ameren, she said.

"It's very difficult to be trying to budget when you don't know if you're going to have the money," she said.

DNR's response to Ameren's counterproposal calls for the utility to pay $115 million. It also proposes that Ameren allow state usage of Ameren-owned Church Mountain, which sits near Profitt Mountain, and an old railroad right-of-way that the utility owns in western Missouri.

As for the $10 million Ameren wanted to give to Nixon's office, the DNR plan would use that money to pay for damages in Reynolds County.

DNR has said Church Mountain could be used for unspecified recreational opportunities. The railroad right-of-way would provide a hiking and biking path that would extend DNR's popular Katy Trail from Windsor to Pleasant Hill as part of the effort to extend the Katy Trail from one end of the state to the other.

Nixon called the DNR plan inadequate for failing to require the hydroelectric plant to reopen, failing to ensure that Ameren customers won't bear part of the expense, and failing to provide compensation for Reynolds County.

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