DNR, Nixon may work together on Taum Sauk

Monday, May 7, 2007

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Officials with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources may be willing to put aside differences with Attorney General Jay Nixon and work with him toward a settlement with Ameren Corp. over the Taum Sauk disaster, DNR director Doyle Childers said Monday.

Childers' comments came the same day Nixon sent a letter to an Ameren attorney outlining what he called the "essential elements" necessary to settle a civil case over the December 2005 breach of the Taum Sauk hydroelectric plant in southeast Missouri. The accident spilled 1.3 billion gallons of water down Profitt Mountain, badly damaging the Black River and Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park. On May 2, DNR announced its own settlement proposal.

Childers said he generally liked what he saw in Nixon's letter.

"Is the intent to move forward? If it is, we welcome that," said Childers, who called it "highly likely" his office will contact Nixon's to try and come up with a unified settlement proposal to Ameren.

"I feel very optimistic we ought to be able to get something moving on this," Childers said.

Several calls to Ameren were not returned.

Nixon said politics has never played a part in his handling of the case. He declined to speculate on the possibility of working with DNR on a settlement.

"This is too important for politics," Nixon said. "You're dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars of ratepayer money, funding for schools in that area, restoring a pristine area.

"Hopefully we'll provide a framework to end this matter and get people to work."

Nixon and the DNR have feuded for months over which state entity has the right to negotiate a settlement with Ameren. Childers said last week that Nixon was "fired" after DNR officials learned the attorney general had accepted $20,000 in campaign donations. Nixon contends it is his constitutional responsibility to handle the legal matter.

Nixon, a Democrat, is running for governor in 2008 against incumbent Republican Matt Blunt. Childers is an appointee of Blunt.

Ameren has felt caught in the middle. In fact, after Childers called a news conference outside Ameren headquarters to announce last week's settlement proposal, Ameren officials arrived with toy footballs, complaining the two state agencies were playing "political football" with the utility.

On the surface, the plans outlined by DNR and Nixon seem quite different. The DNR plan called for Ameren to pay $115 million; to allow state usage of Ameren-owned Church Mountain, which sits near Profitt Mountain; and to give the DNR rights to a western Missouri railroad right-of-way the state would use to extend the Katy Trail hiking and biking path.

In his letter to Haar, Nixon said the DNR's plans "are not adequate to fairly and fully compensate the losses of the state and its citizens ..." His plan would require Ameren to:

--Spend $350 to rebuild Taum Sauk, a price tag that includes state-of-the-art safety and environmental protection features.

--Agree to make tax payments to Reynolds County at the same level as if the plant were still up and running. Ameren has already agreed to make those payments through 2007, but officials in the Lesterville School District say they'll face a severe financial crisis that will include school closings if the payments stop.

--Agree not to pass along to customers costs associated with the settlement, reconstruction of the plant and rebuilding of Johnson's Shut-Ins.

Childers agreed with those main points and noted the company has already said it will rebuild. He said federal officials have already given preliminary approval to environmental safeguards in Ameren's rebuild plan, and DNR has already granted some permits for the project. And he said the Missouri Public Service Commission said Ameren cannot raise rates to pay Taum Sauk-related costs.

Childers did not offer a timetable on when the two state agencies could have a joint settlement proposal for Ameren.

DNR initially offered a settlement proposal in December. Ameren countered with one of its own last month, but Childers was critical of a provision calling for a $10 million payment to Nixon's office to be used for cleanup. Although the Ameren plan also provided $10 million to the DNR, Childers called the payment to Nixon a "slush fund" that the attorney general could "hand out to his political cronies."

Childers said Monday he would accept a compromise of putting that money in a trust fund set aside for cleanup.

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