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Rush Island Energy Center

The coal-fired Rush Island Energy Center electricity generation plant owned by Ameren Missouri in Jefferson County is seen in April.

A judge’s ruling serves as a stern warning to Ameren Missouri: Times have changed, the environment matters, and Ameren must clean up its act. By immediately announcing its plan to appeal U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel’s ruling regarding power plant pollution, Ameren makes clear once again that it puts profits first and public health second. This is no way to prevail in a public relations battle that pits Ameren’s business interests against public concerns about an increasingly toxic environment and rapidly warming planet.

Ameren has impressed us with recent investments in clean-energy technology and new options for customers to pay for higher-priced renewable energy to help fight global warming. But every time Ameren fights in court or Jefferson City for the right to pollute the air or endanger groundwater, both the company’s public image and the planet suffer. That’s a losing strategy.

At issue is the excessive sulfur dioxide emitted from Ameren’s Rush Island Energy Center, powered by 1970s-era, coal-fired generating units that have outlived their useful life. Sippel ruled in January 2017 that the Rush Island plant violated the federal Clean Air Act by emitting “significantly more pollution” after Ameren made modifications to boost the plant’s power output — without obtaining the required permits. Sippel on Monday ordered the installation of smokestack scrubbers, which could cost in excess of $800 million. Ameren must make “ton-for-ton” reductions in emissions at its Labadie power plant to compensate for Rush Island’s excesses.

Consumers likely will have to cover these costs unless regulators require other profit-reducing payment plans. Ameren has continuously pumped toxins into the air while arguing that the pollutants weren’t harmful. Sippel correctly called out the company for its reliance on bogus science.

“Ameren admits it can afford to comply with the requested remedies,” Sippel wrote in his 157-page ruling, adding that “compliance at Rush Island serves the public interest.” He blasted the company for trying to evade compliance with federal environmental regulations.

There’s a familiar pattern here. The ash produced by Ameren’s coal-fired plants is known to contain arsenic and mercury, among other toxins. Ameren for decades has stored ash in big ponds located in flood plains next to major rivers. The toxins can seep into rivers and groundwater. Like installing scrubbers, excavating coal ash and disposing of it properly is expensive, affecting profit margins.

Instead, Ameren said in August it will leave the ash in place and cover it with soil. It sure seems like Ameren wants to walk away from the problem it created, but Vice President Warren Wood insists, “This is a continued-monitoring approach.”

Burying the ash in place will cost about $50 million. Removing and properly processing the waste would cost $2 billion, with the cleanup spread over decades. The message for the public is clear: If Ameren can’t bury it physically, burying it in litigation is the next best thing.