The Sierra Club received conditional approval last week to become a formal party to a federal lawsuit against Ameren Missouri’s Rush Island coal plant.

Judge Rodney W. Sippel of the U.S. District Court for Eastern Missouri in St. Louis ruled late last month the utility violated the Clean Air Act by not applying for permits which could have resulted in the utility having to install pollution control equipment known as a “scrubber” at the plant.

The Sierra Club of Missouri’s Andy Knott says the infraction resulted in excess Sulphur Dioxide emissions which led to loss of human lives.

“Back in 2010, the organization is called the Clean Air Task Force, they had that air pollution from Rush Island contributes 40 premature deaths, 61 heart attacks and 670 asthma attacks per year” said Knott.

The Clean Air Task Force is a non-profit environmental group, as is the Sierra Club.

Research by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources has shown emissions from the Rush Island plant have created Sulphur Dioxide “hot spots” in Jefferson County south of St. Louis.  The toxic gas poses a health risk for children, the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions such as asthma.

In a statement, Ameren Missouri President Michael Moehn said “We disagree with the ruling and believe the court misapplied the law and ignored the evidence presented at trial”.

Knott says the infraction at the Rush Island plant dates back to 2007.  “What happened is that Ameren made major modifications to the Rush Island plant without getting the proper permits, and those major modifications allowed the plant to emit more pollution.”

Ameren’s Moehn countered “The Rush Island is among the most efficient plants in the country and burns some of the lowest sulfur coal available, and SO2 emissions are more than a third lower than when the projects at issue were performed many years ago. Air quality in and around the Rush Island facility is 64 percent below the current federal mandate level.”

The U.S. Justice Department initially took the utility to court on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011.  The six year case resulted in the judge’s ruling that Ameren is liable for violating the Clean Air Act.

The Sierra Club submitted its motion to intervene as a protective measure against the Trump administration backtracking from the litigation.

Knott notes that, as a candidate, Trump often said he wanted to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency.  He says congressional confirmation of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt last week to head the EPA is also alarming.

“He’s sued the E.P.A. on many areas” said Knott.  “He’s described himself as the leading advocate against the E.P.A.’s activist agenda.  And he also told a local paper in Oklahoma that regulation through litigation is wrong.”

With the judge’s ruling against Ameren, the next phase of the lawsuit will be to determine how the utility would come into compliance with the law.

Before that takes place, Ameren has 14 days to respond to the judge’s decision allowing the Sierra Club to intervene on the lawsuit.  Knott says he expects the utility to seek a reversal of the judge’s ruling, in which case the environmental group would be given seven days to respond to the court.

Moehn says Ameren plans to appeal the court’s action “at the appropriate time”.

During the suit’s next phase, known as the remedy phase, the judge will determine how Ameren will be brought into conformity with the law.  Knott says the judge could take several months to a year to make a decision, but thinks the utility will ultimately be required to install the pollution control equipment.