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Taum Sauk Settlement A Sell-Out
(This is reposted from the Missouri Parks Association)
The state's $180 million settlement with Ameren over the Taum Sauk Reservoir collapse announced November 28 may sound like a good deal. But unfortunately, in the view of MPA leaders, it is a sell-out to Ameren. It does nothing to protect Church Mountain, the most critically threatened resource in the midst of the Taum Sauk complex of state-owned wild lands, but instead ties the state to a highly dubious "license" to construct a link part-way to Kansas City for the cross-state Katy Trail.
The deal is the outcome of protracted negotiation behind closed doors between Ameren and state officials jockeying among themselves for political advantage. The long-range interests of Missourians and their state park system were not well served in the process.
At issue are the uses of the $84 million payment for natural resource damages agreed to by the negotiators (rebuilding of Johnson's Shut-ins State Park and recompense for other injured parties in the region are provided for elsewhere in the settlement). The Missouri Parks Association and other organizations across the spectrum of conservation concern in Missouri, including the Conservation Federation of Missouri, The Nature Conservancy, Audubon Missouri, Sierra Club and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, argued from the start that the incredible destruction of natural resource values at Johnson's Shut-ins should be compensated by protecting other natural resources in the region: natural resources destroyed should be compensated by natural resources preserved and protected. That indeed is the legal intent of natural resource damage determinations nationwide.
At the outset, Governor Blunt and DNR director Doyle Childers publicly announced that they hoped to secure Ameren lands on Church Mountain and a Katy Trail link to Kansas City on Ameren's Rock Island Line. Ameren apparently refused early on to part with either Church Mountain, on which it has long planned to build a second and much larger pumped storage reservoir, or its Rock Island Line, on which there have been no trains running for years, offering instead to discuss a possible lease for public trails on Church Mountain and a "license" for an entirely new trail at the edge of its Rock Island right-of-way. Then it put inflated values on these limited concessions, forcing an eventual choice between Church Mountain and the trail extension.
Thousands of people, including many MPA members, have been waiting for a Katy link to Kansas City, so the choice of the trail extension was certain to be politically popular in a part of the state far removed from Johnson's Shut-ins. But in opting for the Katy extension the state not only tied itself to a dubious proposition but gave up an opportunity to protect Church Mountain, put other state-owned lands in the region at risk of degradation by industrial development there, and failed to preserve or protect any substantial natural resources in compensation for the natural resources destroyed at Johnson's Shut-ins.
Church Mountain is part of the mental geography of hundreds of thousands of people who have viewed it from Taum Sauk Mountain, Mina Sauk Falls, or other vantage points along trails in the region, probably without even knowing its name or realizing it was Ameren's property. Ameren's approximately 1300 acres there (the rest is part of Taum Sauk Mountain State Park) had been sought for inclusion in the 7,028-acre St. Francois Mountains Natural Area, the largest and most biodiverse natural area in Missouri, but Ameren declined. The firm did, however, grant the state a 25-year lease for public trails in 1990, but the park division inexplicably failed to develop any, pleading lack of funds. The lease, which remains in effect until 2015as well as a 20-year right of first refusal to purchase the property if Ameren decides to sell, which Ameren granted as part of the settlementexplicitly allows Ameren to use the land for other purposes. In 2001 Ameren applied to FERC for a preliminary permit to build a second pumped storage plant there, then withdrew its application after MPA, other organizations, Missouri citizens, and state officials objected (see Heritage, August and November 2001, on the MPA website); but it has admitted the plant is still in its long-range plans.
A pumped-storage reservoir crowning Church Mountain would be a blight from virtually every vantage point in the region. While the current reservoir site on Proffit Mountain is hidden from a number of vantage points by Church Mountain and a higher dome of Proffit, a reservoir on Church would intrude into the center of nearly every view; it would seriously diminish the recreational experience on more than 15,000 acres of state parks and other public land in this most iconic of wild Ozark landscapes as well as cause major fragmentation and degradation of this highly significant ecosystem. The new and larger lower reservoir would flood the historic Boy Scout Trail along Taum Sauk Creek, one of the finest remaining Ozark headwater streams in the state and a designated State Outstanding Resource Water, destroying the stream and cutting off the riparian route between Taum Sauk Mountain and Johnson's Shut-ins state parks.
Yet DNR and the governor walked away from protecting Church and opted instead to use natural resource damage funds in a way that would almost certainly create even more natural resource damage. The new Rock Island-Katy trail extension must be at least 25 feet from the center line of the rail bed and it may not use any of the railroad bridges or crossings. So several hundred acres of mature trees would have to be cut and riparian wetlands disturbed to build the new trail. State officials contend they can build more than 80 new bridges and road crossings plus grading and ballast along the 46-mile route from Windsor to Pleasant Hill for the $18 million provided in the settlement, yet the cost was estimated years ago at more than $20 million. And there would still be more than 30 miles to go to Kansas City with no clear strategy in sight.
And that is not the worst problem. Ameren doesn't even own much of the land; it would only be licensing its interest in a portion of its right-of-way, and its right is for a railroad, not a trail. The state would have to deal with hundreds of individual landowners, any of whom could challenge the trail. Ameren is not abandoning the rail line, so the state would not have the benefit of the National Rails to Trails Act if challenged in court. Would the state prevail? The result would surely not be known for years. For this dubious license Ameren is receiving a $15 million credit in the settlement, when all of the risk is borne by the state.
DNR's Doyle Childers explained to a reporter that the state could not consider Church Mountain because Ameren was asking $66 million for its lands there, yet others say no such figure was ever mentioned in the negotiations because DNR and the governor had already walked away. Ameren acquired most of its land around 1960 when the going rate would have been less than $5 an acre, and even at perhaps as much as $1000 an acre for wild land in the Ozarks today the price would be only about $1.3 million. The $66 million figure, if true, could only reflect its purported value to Ameren as a pumped storage reservoir site. But who knows what a court of law would decide, especially if the court were asked to take into consideration the costs imposed on the public in terms of degradation of surrounding public lands, recreation foregone, and contributions to atmospheric carbon dioxide from burning 1.5 times as much energy in coal to pump water up the mountain as it produces when going down?
In short, the Rock Island-Katy Trail extension is likely to cost far more than is being provided in the settlement, if indeed the trail is ever built, and it could drain funds from other park purposes for years to come. Meantime, once settlement funds are deposited in the state treasury they would still require legislative appropriation and they could be subject to diversions for other uses, as has been happening to park funds in recent years. The deal that was hailed by the Kansas City Star as "a promising path" turns out to be full of doubt and foreboding for the state park system. Ameren, on the other hand, has given up nothing; it has announced that it expects both its settlement costs and the rebuild of the Taum Sauk Reservoir to be covered by insurance.
How much better it would have been for state officials to make common cause to secure Church Mountain. A reasonable settlement to preserve Church Mountain would produce value for Missourians in perpetuity in the heart of the most iconic landscape in the state, and protect the state's already substantial investment in surrounding lands. It would require virtually no development and very little maintenance or personnel cost. That would be by far the most appropriate legacy for Missourians to come from the Taum Sauk disaster.
The public is invited to submit any comments on the settlement to DNR by December 27 for consideration by the state, Ameren, and the Reynolds County Circuit Court, which must approve the agreement. The park division is collating the comments: send by email to firstname.lastname@example.org (or from Contact Us on the state park website, mostateparks.com); by U.S. mail to Missouri DNR Division of State Parks, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102; or by phone to 1-800-334-6946. We encourage you to express your views.