JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- State utility regulators on Friday continued to probe the balancing act that Ameren Corp. plays between generating profits and providing safe electricity during another day of public hearing into the Taum Sauk reservoir collapse.
A vice president of Ameren's energy trading group said energy traders in the company help decide when it's most profitable to shut down power plants for repairs, although the company does not keep plants running if there is a safety concern.
"If a trader was trying to push someone to operate unsafely, that would be a very short-term benefit compared to the long-term loss that could be associated with it," Shawn Schukar, a vice president at the Ameren Energy division, said in an interview after the hearing.
The Missouri Public Service Commission is investigating what role Ameren's drive for profitability played in the 2005 reservoir collapse, which unleashed a 1.3-billion-gallon deluge of water that badly damaged Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park and injured the park superintendent, his wife and three children.
Ameren engineer Steve Bluemner testified earlier that Ameren's trading department denied several of his requests to close the Taum Sauk reservoir for repairs in the fall of 2005, just months before the December 2005 collapse. The repairs were never completed before the reservoir overflowed and breached.
PSC chairman Jeff Davis said he was concerned that Ameren plant workers feel the need to bow to economic concerns when scheduling repairs.
"Some of the testimony left me with the impression that the plant operators were not on an equal footing with the folks in energy marketing," Davis said after the hearing.
Attorney General Jay Nixon is suing Ameren and a federal criminal investigation is under- way into the utility's conduct at the hydroelectric plant.
The PSC is investigating the collapse to see if it reflects widespread safety problems at Ameren, which runs several power plants -- including a nuclear reactor -- in Missouri and Illinois.
Ameren attorneys made a motion Friday to close the investigation because the company has provided all the witnesses and documents requested by the PSC.
"We feel that this matter has been thoroughly investigated," attorney Robert Haar said.
Davis said the commission would not likely call additional witnesses. He said the commission staff will produce a report on the collapse based on the hearing testimony and research. That report could be finished within a month and might include recommended changes to Ameren's management procedures, Davis said.
PSC commissioner Steve Gaw sharply questioned Schukar for several hours Friday, asking how Ameren energy traders decide when to approve a plant closure.
Schukar echoed other managers when he said that plant managers make the final call. If a manager feels that safety is at stake, the plant closes. If the manager feels safety is not an issue, then energy marketers figure out when market prices are lowest and schedule a plant closure then.
"I can't find any evidence at this point that they had any written protocol that determines a safety issue," Gaw said after the hearing. "They just leave it up to the individual to make the call."
Schukar said that after the Taum Sauk collapse, it was made clear that safety concerns should always trump economic concerns in a companywide memo sent by Thomas Voss, chief executive of Ameren's division in Missouri.