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Tell It Like It Was - The Stacks of Labadie Part 1

Adapted from the original email-letters from Paul Ovaitt - Original date June 17, 2022


The Stacks of Labadie. Bob Hofer. Dave Nadler. Steve Sehrt. Ray Neuberger.


Gentle readers, today is Friday, the 17th day of June, in the year 2022. I got up this morning a little before 6am. I flipped a light switch and my closet filled with light for a moment; then nothing. I thought the bulb had burned out, but then I oxymoronically heard the silence of our house and realized the electric was out again up here on the ridge they call Duke Road.

Like so many people who don’t live in the town limits of Augusta, we belong to the Cuivre River Electric Co-op. And by now, you probably think I’m going to launch into a gripe-rant about the co-op. But not so. In fact, I’m writing this morning about Ameren/UE, or Ameren Missouri if you prefer. More specifically I’m writing about the Labadie power plant. I had already done a few preliminary interviews for this story, but I just wasn’t getting the spark I needed to start typing. Isn’t it curious that a power outage was the boost I needed?

There were several reasons I couldn’t get moving. Apparently, the topic itself was a bit of a non-starter. Most folks had nothing they wanted to say about it. Others didn’t want to start a controversy. One woman told me that I think too much.

And then Augusta’s rock-solid mayor, and all-around good guy, Bob Hofer passed away. https://boonecountryconnection.com/featurespeople/obituaries/8959-robert-bob-hofer-jr

A few weeks later the amiable and much-loved Dave Nadler left this world. https://www.tributearchive.com/obituaries/25061926/david-hootie-lee-nadler/

Truly, I was bumming. Here’s a link to an interview we did with Dave and his cousin Leroy Nadler:



Now, Word tells me I’ve typed 270 words, so I guess I’m doing this thing…278.

Saturday, June 18: I can’t think about Augusta without thinking about the Labadie coal-fired power plant. For me, the stacks, the smoke trail heading north, and the lights at night have always been a significant part of the landscape, just like the heavy drone, the loud pops, and the loudspeaker intercom make up so much of the daily soundtrack. Thus, I started quizzing long-time residents about their initial reaction to this addition to their world.



You know what? Mostly, I received replies which were the equivalent of shrugging one’s shoulders. However, one person, younger than me, who works in Augusta and lives nearby, said she often wondered how the locals felt about Ameren’s giant presence. Even though Labadie didn’t particularly bother her, she noted that wind turbines totally freak her out, and she could never live near one.

Eventually, I found a local who remembered watching the stacks rise and was willing to talk about it.

Steve Sehrt: We never took a trip down there…to the plant area…as a matter of fact, the closest I’ve been, is in a boat going past it. But we could see it as they finished it, section by section. We would take a drive…during certain times of the year…you could really see them from certain areas…where Klondike Park is now.

Paul: Good, bad, or indifferent…how do you feel about it?

SS: I enjoy heating with wood…and I enjoy using as little electricity as possible. But I’m all for the cleanup improvements that have been made as long as they come at a pace where they are actually affordable…for the elderly…or those with lower incomes. I remember when the federal government…in cooperation with the state…got done with all the open dumping. I was in Augusta by the age of 5, and there was an open city dump…right where the parking lot was for the ball diamond down there in the bottoms. I remember they got that all cleaned up. That’s when Tucker first started. He started with a half-ton pickup truck and plywood sideboards.

Now, what’s this have to do with the Labadie plant? Well, at the same time, they were getting stricter with Labadie. As a child, especially in the fall of the year…we would come outside and there would be fly ash on our cars from the power plant…nothing disastrous…but I remember that distinctly. Bit by bit, that stopped because they had to use scrubbers…some kind of apparatus…that pulls the ash before it can go out the stack.

Gentle readers, Dave Klaas and I were walking last week at Klondike Park. We hiked up to the bluff that overlooks the power plant, and I snapped a couple power plant photos on my phone. BUT I also took several pics of the 50-100 black vultures that were holding a convention at the park. Now, I am not talking about the usual turkey vultures we see every day…I’m talking about a relative newcomer to our area.



Here’s a description from the Missouri Conservation Department: “The black vulture has a large, black body with a naked black head. Seen from below, the wings are mostly black, with a white patch near the outer end of the wing; the tail is short. In flight, it alternates between a series of three to four flaps and soaring. The wings are held nearly horizontally. It frequently flies higher than turkey vultures, following and watching them from above.”


A birder friend tells me bvs follow tvs because their sense of smell is not as developed as that of tvs. Your gentle writer would add that bvs seem more graceful, and they are not easily scared off by two-legged creatures. Check out the photos I included.

Gentle readers, Wikipedia has this to say about Labadie: “Labadie Energy Center, a coal-fired power plant owned by Ameren, began generation in 1970. In 2019, Ameren was ordered by a federal judge to install equipment at the plant to reduce its carbon emissions. Ameren has also faced backlash from community environmentalist groups due to the coal ash landfill located on the energy center's property.”

An Augusta resident, Ray Neuberger (photo included), helped to build the plant as a boilermaker. He was employed with Bechtel Corporation, the general contractor for the plant. Ray also has a passion for American history, and in 2019 he spoke at a special Tell It Like It Was event in which he shared his knowledge of George Caleb Bingham. Bingham, 1811-1879, was an American artist, soldier and politician. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Caleb_Bingham


Ray Neuberger: 1969 was when I first went out there. They (Bechtel) were probably out there a year before that…68 or 67. It takes a while to get everything going…they’ve got to drive pilings…

Paul: I read on a website that Labadie opened in 1970. Does that sound right?

RN: That’s probably about the time they finished the first unit. They’d get one going and then start another unit. I think they finished one shortly after I was there…Unit 1. In 1970…that one was probably finished, and we went to the next one to make it come online approximately in 1971. Then 72…then 73 is probably when they finished the last one. After you get most of it done there’s always stuff you have to do…put insulation around it…put the tin on it. And even though the other units are running…and it’s hotter than blazes in there…you’ve still got to finish the job. They had us dragging stuff in there for a repair one time…it was like 160 degrees in that boiler. You can only work about 10 or 15 minutes…it was 95 outside and it felt like you were walking into a refrigerator.

P: Can you explain the boiler system? Are you making steam to run a turbine?

RN: It’s a complicated machine. You have a boiler… and the boiler itself, I’d say the firebox inside is like 80’ by 80’ by maybe 150’ high…there’s wall tubes where the water goes up…because heat rises…it goes to a steam drum…up at the top. They have repairs inside them…you have to go in there and change things…cut things out…put new stuff in. And there are stainless-steel baffles that separate the steam from the water that’s sent back down the down comers pipes…great big 10, 12 inch, maybe 14 inch pipes…there’s about 5 of them at the bottom of the steam drum. The separators in the drum separate the water from the steam…and then it goes back through an economizer section…a super-heated section. The economizer heats the water before it goes into the boiler………… (Eventually he lost me as he recited the litany of stages required to move a turbine without overheating everything.)

P: I understand the plant releases hot water back into the river and that’s why eagles hang around there when winter gets severely cold.

RN: That’s the water that comes out of the condenser. One side…it goes in cold water out of the river…and then you’ve got a discharge. The suction is usually upstream…and downstream it angles back down the river…and there’s a great big area…and that’s where all those animals…the birds and fish and everything else comes up in that warm water. There’s always a flow of water…constant. When it comes out in cold weather you can see the steam rise…it’s like a canal…it’s like a hundred feet across. It’s like a little stream…there are ripples in it.

P: Do you filter the water coming into the plant? And how fine?

RN: Not that fine…they just have these stainless-steel screens. They’re flat and have holes in them. Stuff collects in them…and they have gates there…and if one of them gets plugged up, they switch to the next one. Somebody’s got to clean that. It’s on a cable system. They just pull it up…and clean that screen off. And it’s not like a fine mesh…it’s got holes in it the size of your little finger. It’s not clean water…it’s got mud and everything else in it. That’s why they never slow down…they’ve got to keep a certain pressure on it to keep all those tubes clean. But every once in a while, they have to go in…those tubes get worn…and when they have shutdown, they replace the tubes in the condensers. There’s a lot of maintenance to those places.

P: Where did you live when you worked at Labadie?

RN: I lived in Florissant. I’d go over Wildhorse Creek Road…it would take at least an hour each way. You had to go in and out on T. And these two guys…they bought a tavern there…never saw it…they were from Minnesota, I think. They didn’t know they were gonna build a power plant there…They just got lucky…bought this tavern…pretty soon…every day at lunchtime, I don’t know how many hamburgers they sold…and they’d sell beer by the 6 pack or the 12 pack. They had to put a cooler in outside to keep up with it. They made a ton of money. It was called The Hitching Post.

P: When did you move to Augusta?

RN: About 2008…well, that’s when I left California…I was here by 2010. I used to look at the town from across the river at the plant…oh man, that would be a nice place to live over there. I drove through Augusta all the time because after that (Labadie), I lived in Washington and New Haven. And there was never anything for sale. Then I came through here after I left California, and there were 2 houses for sale. I paid a little more and got the newer house.

P: So, you liked the view of Augusta from Labadie. How do you like the view of Labadie from here? Good, bad, or indifferent?

RN: Well, it’s over there, far enough away. Now, these stones I have in front…they’re red stones, rocks…quarried plates…the Indians made their pipes out of that red stone. Their pipes absorbed all the bad stuff…that’s why, I think, the Indians didn’t get as much cancer…they smoked those pipes all the time. My stones out front turn black…from the stacks at Labadie. I think sooner or later, they’ll probably close that down…maybe another 10 years from now.

P: A handful of my house painting customers in Augusta, always claimed that the black on their houses was not just mildew. They said it’s Labadie.

RN: It is! Go over to Granite City. Look at those houses. They’ll paint them one year, and next year they’re grey instead of white. That’s the pollution from the Granite City Steel.

P: The smoke from the Labadie stacks is generally blowing away from Augusta. Do you think enough of it gets into the atmosphere and then settles on Augusta?

RN: I think so…and at night…they probably shut down the precipitators…and stuff comes right out the stack…and an hour or so before daylight they probably turn them back on.

P: Why would they do that?

RN: (Chuckle.) There’s a lot of electricity goes into running those things. There are electric wires going through them…and they’ve got to be charged…and that takes a lot of electricity. So that’s one way they save money. I think a lot of pollution is caused by Labadie.

P: Can you hear the plant from your house in Augusta? Up on Duke Road it can be loud, especially this morning when the breeze was out of the south. It was a constant roar.

RN: Those are those fans outside…the induction fan. And they have outduction fans…that air has to be heated; it goes through a pre-heater. If it’s too cold, and cold air gets into the boiler…it’ll blow the boiler apart. That does happen sometimes. You can also hear when…they call it blowing tubes…they check their safety valves…and they blow down the boiler, they call it…and they open them up. They’re on top of the building…it sounds like a big blast…

P: I hear that sometimes.

RN: Yeah, it doesn’t happen all the time. It’s usually when they shut the boiler down…let the steam out.

P: Is there an overlap between your coal powered plant skills and the skills of building a nuclear plant?

RN: Yeah. I was up there (Callaway) about 8 or 10 times. I worked there when they built it. That was Bechtel Corporation also.

P: Does Callaway use the Missouri River for cooling purposes?

RN: Sure. They pump it up to the plant. It runs to the cooling towers

P: Hey Ray, we’ve talked 47 minutes. Thanks for taking the time to educate me on this topic.

RN: If you have any more questions, give me a call.

Gentle, curious readers, that’s all for part 1. In part 2 you’ll hear from Jim Neill, a resident of the Augusta area and a retired employee of the Labadie plant. We’ll also discuss kayaking on the Labadie outflow, and who knows, maybe I’ll find a river rat who will share his/her relationship with that stretch of the river.


Stay cool and curious.

Paul

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