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Tell It Like It Was - The Stacks of Labadie Part 2

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

Adapted from the original email-letters from Paul Ovaitt - Original date July 6, 2022

The Stacks of Labadie Part 2 or Who Keeps Knocking My Mailbox Down or PCBs or Jim Neill or Patricia Schuba or a Word with Kevin Massmann or Kayaking the Labadie Discharge ------you pick

Gentle readers, all through the 1980s I lived in the Salem Schoolhouse (see photo of porch addition after raising the schoolhouse 2 feet) near Berg’s crossing on 94. The building is no longer there due to a couple monster floods and a divorce. When St. Charles County offered to buy me out in an attempt to rid the county of homes in floodplains, I accepted their meager offer, but not before I called the county and the state historical offices to interest them in moving and preserving the old one-room schoolhouse…no takers.

Oh well… I certainly did bond with that location while I was there. Often, to amuse myself, I would paddle my canoe up the Missouri River, which is not as hard as it sounds if you hug the shore. So, I got to know the sandbar across from the Labadie plant as a destination on the river. (See photo.) Likewise, I noted eagles flying near my house on the coldest days of the winter. Sometimes, I could see UE’s ribbon of smoke heading north. And more often, I would hear the serenade of the plant. One day as I sat on the porch of my neighbor, Arthur Berg, he accurately predicted rain based on the quality of sound coming from Labadie.

About that time, I heard that my big neighbor, Ameren UE, was going to start burning trash. And… something else they were already burning, was adding toxic PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) to our local air. Well, that was all I needed to inspire me to compose a song about the drawbacks of living at the schoolhouse. It’s called Who Keeps Knocking My Mailbox Down? I have included a recording. It’s got destroyed mailboxes, floods, trains, mosquitos and PCBs. If you listen to the end you’ll hear me nail that mosquito.

"Who Keeps Knocking My Mailbox Down?" by Paul Ovaitt

Now faithful readers, does anyone remember part 1 of this story, The Stacks of Labadie? Yeah, I know, it was a bit of a snooze, but I did receive a few emails in response. Let me share a couple.

Sam Stang: Hey Paul, _______ ______ told me that some of the laborers who helped build that power plant lived in Augusta and would cross the river everyday by boat.

Walter Kamphoefner, professor of history at Texas A&M, wrote thusly: Thank you, Paul. I went to the Lutheran grade school with both Nadler cousins for as long as we overlapped. David was in the same age as my brother Ed, three years behind me, and Leroy four. I had heard about David's passing from my brother Paul, who still at age 73 digs a lot of the graves around here. An example of Dave's sunny disposition: when their house burned down, the next day when he came to school he told my brother, I guess you can't borrow Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, which my brother had been wanting to read.

We of course watched the Labadie plant go up from our farm in Defiance. One of our Diederich cousins worked there for a while and commuted by boat. It never bothered us too much, but then when my Mom got too old to put us up in her house, we camped at Klondike Park for a couple of nights. We had no idea beforehand how much the noise there continued all night.

Chris Arnold: I remember seeing it go up bit by bit. My dad helped build the plant from the beginning. He always said that if he had a boat, he'd cross from Augusta over and have the shortest commute of anyone working there.

Janet Haferkamp Fuhr, in an earlier conversation: I was (living in STL) …but I heard what my mother and dad…they didn’t think much of it because it was right in their line of vision. And we went over one time…our youngest daughter was smaller, and she called it the pution stacks. She couldn’t say pollution, so, in our family it was always the pution stacks. I guess she heard my mom and dad say that.

Gentle readers, let me tell you about my closest neighbor, Jim Neill. He is 73yo and he knows a thing or two about the Labadie power plant because he worked there 38 years (1974-2012). His job description during his last 25 years there was instrument and control technician. But I know him as this guy who loves to fish and is knowledgeable about the natural world. He’s also passionate about live music, and he personally knows a ton of players (young and old) in the STL area.

Jim and his wife, Lynn, have chickens, dogs and cats, a couple horses, some miniature horses, a donkey, and one lonely, but very gentle, long-horned bull. Consequently, Jim logs many hours on tractors and mowers when he isn’t repairing fences or shoveling manure. Their property is also home to coyotes, foxes, deer, racoons, ducks, hawks and all the usual suspects.

I interviewed Jim on May 27 of 2022. Some of my questions about Labadie touched on sensitive environmental issues. Please be aware that Jim is not acting as a spokesman for Ameren, just as I am not acting as an environmental investigative reporter.

Jim Neill: I grew up around Springfield, MO, and I was there until 1972 when I moved to Granite City because I got a job as a librarian in the Granite City Public Library.

Paul: No kidding?

J: Yep. (Chuckle.) I was actually a cataloguer…I was the guys who assigns Dewey decimal numbers to books.

P: Did you study library science?

J: Originally, I went to Rolla to major in math, and right away they convinced me I was not a math major. When I was in high school…math, philosophy, and psychology…those were my interests. So, I changed to psychology because I could still get a degree from Rolla. Then I went back to Springfield and took one semester of library science courses at what was then Southwest Missouri State. I took 12 or 15 hours.

I was having trouble finding a job in Springfield because I had a degree in psychology…there aren’t that many jobs… I applied for other jobs…like factories…but they wouldn’t hire me because they said, “You’ve got a degree in psychology; you’re not going to stay.” So…Granite City was looking for a cataloguer. I applied for that…got that job…and I moved to Granite City. I lived there for a year and a half. It didn’t pay much, but I did okay.

Everybody over there…they either worked for Granite City Steel or Union Electric…those were the two good jobs to have. And I had a roommate who also worked at the library, and one day he suggested that we put on a coat and tie and apply at Union Electric…so we did. They hired me. So, I worked at the Venice power plant there at the east end of the McKinley Bridge.

I worked there for about 6 months and then I came out to Labadie, November of 1974. I moved to St. Louis County…Creve Coeur…Ballwin…got married and moved to Washington, then out to Campbellton on Hwy. 185. My first wife and I lived out there 11…12 years. We got divorced and I moved back to Washington, and I met Lynn. In 1991 we got married. In 93 we moved to Augusta. That’s the short story.

P: We became your neighbor in December of 2010. I remember seeing you head off to work very early in the morning.

J: …at the power plant, a lot of people over there work some kind of rotating shift. The first couple years I worked mainly AMs and PMs. AM is 7 to 3; PM is 3 to 11. And then I went into operations…for 9 years…and that’s a rotating shift where you work a different shift every week, and you work all 3 shifts. That’s a tough schedule; some people just can’t do that.

P: It would be hard to adjust to. You wouldn’t know if you’re coming or going.

J: You don’t get adjusted to it. And the interesting thing is, a lot of people…and I have mixed feelings about this…a lot of people like that kind of shift because you also work holidays…and guys like that because it got them out of all that family stuff. Like… “I don’t have to go to the in-laws because I have to work.” It also pays a little more if you’re on a shift that rotates.

P: Would you describe your work as an instrument and control technician?

J: I worked on automatic controls, for example, if we had a control valve that automatically opens and closes…depending on pressure, temperature…it could be level that controls it. I would work on that to make sure it worked properly. We did a lot of temperature measurements where we use thermocouples…making sure they got into the computer with the correct temperature. We did routine checking of equipment.

P: When you say “we”, are you referring to a group or team?

J: Most the time I had the job there were 25 of us. With the plant…because it’s so big and there’s so many parts of it…some guys would be good with some particular part, and they would work on that a lot…maybe not see something else for 2 or 3 years. One thing I did, I worked on the O2 equipment. O2 is like the oxygen sensor in the car. We measured how much oxygen was in the smoke coming out of the fire. We wanted to know how much oxygen we have left. We wanted to burn all the coal, so we needed to have oxygen there, but we didn’t want too much. That’s some pretty technical equipment. You’ve got oxygen probes. You’ve got an analyzer, and there’s a whole calibration system to go with it. It gets complicated and boring.

P: Did they provide training?

J: Yes. For the instrument and control technician job there was a 4-year apprenticeship.

P: I’m shifting the topic a little. I remember back in the 80s there was some talk that Labadie was going to start burning trash. There was also a concern about PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in the air. Does any of this ring a bell with you?

J: There was talk about trash, and they tried that at the Sioux plant…Portage de Sioux. I don’t know the details on that. I know there was some concern with collection points and pests…rats. I think they did burn some for a couple years…and don’t quote me on this…but I think they quit because they couldn’t get enough trash to make it worthwhile. They tried it and they quit.

As far as the PCBs…Labadie did burn PCB oil. Most of that was transformer oil…and that would come from all around the Ameren system, and they would ship it out to Labadie. We got approved by the EPA to be able to burn that. And there were some pretty strict conditions. We could only burn it in one unit, unit 4…and we had to monitor that the whole time…keep the unit load steady…temperatures had to be good in the fire. It was complicated and nobody liked doing it. Whenever we got enough oil in the tank…we’d burn for the next 3 days or whatever…maybe 2-4 times a year. It was boring but you had to be sure to do everything right. It’s probably been 20 years since they quit that.

P: Tell me, what do you see when you look at the stacks? Is that a thing of beauty to you…or how do you regard it?

J: I have mixed feelings. It provided well for me and other employees…paid well…good benefits. On the other hand, it’s a lot of hard work. It’s always hot, always noisy. Those are two things you can count on. Even in the winter…you may be outside…several years ago when we had that low temperature in the minus 20s…I had to work outside that night. But if you’re inside, up by the boiler, it may be 120 degrees when it’s zero outside. Most places inside the plant are not air-conditioned.

P: Many people are aware of the ongoing coal-ash pond issues. Do you have anything you’d like to say about it?

J: I’m certainly not an expert, but I will say a couple things. Labadie…and you can look this up…is the number one polluter in the state. (Paul: that’s correct.) That’s mainly air pollution…fly ash and SO 2 and NOx…exhaust gas from burning coal. In that ash you’re going to also get mercury and arsenic, more concentrated than they were in the coal. The ash ponds do increase the concentration of those things.

However, there’s an old ash pond at Labadie…they quit using it maybe by 1985 or 1990. There’s a bunch of trees and bushes growing around it…fish in it…I’ve seen as many as 150 great blue herons there at one time…fish and frogs. So, you kind of wonder how toxic is it really? There are beavers out there. I’m no expert, but I do know there’s a lot of wildlife out there. Those ponds do not have liners. The new ponds they’ve built do…and by liner, I mean it’s a barrier to keep water from coming through. It’s several layers, not just one layer of plastic or rubber. The liner keeps it from leaching into the ground…into the river…or people’s wells. It’s not good, but is it bad enough to hurt anybody? I don’t know.

I never saw anybody at work who had mercury poisoning, or arsenic poisoning. I mean we worked with ash pretty often. There were times when I worked in Operations with ash…I might be covered with ash. I always wore a respirator, but it’s on your skin…so, I don’t know how toxic that really is. I know that the heavy metals, mercury, and arsenic…those things are cumulative toxins, so once you get them in your system, there really hard to get rid of, and they build up over time. They can certainly cause problems but if you look at the EPA and government regulations, they give you safe exposure limits. You can get so much per day, or so much per year. With radiation, they keep track of it, and when you hit your lifetime limit, you can’t work around it.

Again, I’m no expert, but I can tell you what I’ve seen. But I know that people who live around there are pretty concerned about it. I know…I think I met her a couple times…Patricia Schuba…she lives in Labadie, and she’s got that group, the Labadie Environmental Organization or LEO. That group has been very vocal about pollution. Also, sulfur dioxide that comes out of the smokestacks…that’s one of the things that causes acid rain. The prevailing winds carry all that to the Northeast, so we don’t see it here.

P: Yes, I’ve heard that there’s an overhead path from here to Canada…where it’s going.

J: Along with that pollution, though…Labadie has just done an excellent job on their air pollution. Several times they’ve been one of the best plants in the country as far as…the way they measure that, I think, is the amount of air pollution per megawatt…for the size of the plant. So, if you look at the number that way, we’ve done well in reducing the SO2 and the NOx compounds. It’s really clean compared to a lot of plants.

P: Well, Jim, you’ve given me plenty to work with, and I’m sure I can use a lot of it. Thank you.

Gentle readers, a couple paragraphs back, Jim Neill mentioned Patricia Schuba. She’s the president of the board of directors of the Labadie Environmental Organization (LEO) which was formed in 2009 to oppose a toxic coal ash landfill on 1100+ acres of Missouri River bottomland.

Patricia, who is in her late 50s, has degrees in Biology and has worked in healthcare for over 25 years. This might be a good time to bring her into the conversation.

Paul: You grew up in Labadie. A friend told me that you are 3rd generation there.

Patricia Schuba: Actually, I’m probably more than that on my mother’s side. Her grandparents moved here in the early 1800s. My dad was born in Germany…he came to Labadie in the 1950s. And when I say Labadie, it’s Labadie proper…I’m up on Highway 100…we’ve always lived on what they call Labadie Ridge…not down on the floodplain. I was born…at St. Francis Hospital in Washington, MO which was the precursor to St. John’s.

PO: Last week I spoke with a longtime employee of the plant who had met you, and while he was sympathetic to your concerns, he also noted that the ponds are teeming with wildlife, like great blue herons, that seem to thrive in that location. Such observations have understandably led him to wonder just how toxic that floodplain is.

PS: The unfortunate thing is that it gives the appearance that it’s normal. But if you look at the data and look what happens to those herons…over their lifetime…on their ability to make eggshells for new baby herons… That is affected. My background is in science, so I have a different perspective. That’s why we all need to talk…because no one person holds all the information. It's really important to have personal perspective…and we should listen to everybody.

PO: Well, you certainly sound like a reasonable person.

PS: Well, I try to be…because I grew up here…I come from a farm family…I know different perspectives, and I was fortunate enough to get the degrees that I got and to have the experiences that I’ve had in healthcare that informed my perspective even more. And I never…the whole time with LEO did I ever once scream at someone or tell them that they were wrong. I was very frustrated with our elected officials who actually berated the public…but my natural tendency is to work through problems and to listen to everybody.

Our state regulators don’t know what happens at places like the power plant…because they’ve never been there. The people who work in Jeff City and the Department of Natural Resources…the director and the assistant director have never been at Labadie even though it’s the largest coal-powered power plant in the state. So, we drove them through the floodplain, and they had no idea what it looked like…and were a little shocked at the size of the floodplain and the size of the ash ponds.

People talk about the volume of water that courses through the floodplain…and that dilution is the solution to pollution is the old phrase that people use. But as a biologist and a person who saw cancer patients on a regular basis, I can tell you that the liberated pollution doesn’t go away. It doesn’t go back into the earth where it doesn’t affect anything. So, you’re flushing it out of the floodplain, but someone down the chain of things is going to get exposed to it…or an animal…or an ecosystem.

I worked at Barnes-Jewish for a long time, and I did work…with people who had chronic illnesses. And those people lived in certain locations in the metro-STL area…and I’ll tell you the places where they lived…it was close to dumpsites, known pollution sites…near Alton…or down Highway 55 by the tailing piles from mining. You would find them in certain locations close to exposure to environmental pollutants.

PO: When I started this 2-part story I didn’t know where it would lead me, but it led me to this interview, and I think you added a significant viewpoint. Thank you for speaking with me.

PS: Thanks, Paul, for reaching out to me. I value having this conversation with fellow residents and those that love our communities and the Missouri river. We are a unique community. I believe we will find a way to clean up the floodplain and protect the area from ongoing pollution risks. It is important that we understand one another and respect one another. Thanks for the opportunity to share my perspectives.

Gentle friends of historic Augusta, did you know that our first, live, public interview was with Vic Kuchem of Schell Road? On the evening of July 30, 2019, Vic graciously submitted to an interview in front of a fair-sized crowd. The interviewers were Glenda Drier, Jan Cross, Dave Klaas and me. We delivered the initial questions, and the audience picked up where we left off.

We learned that Vic, an electrician, also worked on the Labadie plant. As the stacks grew, so did Vic’s climb to the top. He was wiring all the way up, a little higher every day. Here’s a link to that Tell It Like It Was video. If you’re in a hurry, jump to 46:30 to hear his account of wiring the stacks.

More recently, I called Kevin Massmann to glean what he knows about the Ameren stretch of river.

Paul: Do you have anything you can tell me about that part of the river?

Kevin: …there’s a sunk barge on the bank, just downstream from the plant. It sank there when they were doing the construction on that power plant. You can see it when the river’s at low levels.

P: I did not know that. Do you fish in that area?

K: Yeah. There’s a warm water discharge canal…it can be…in the cooler weather, it can be a good fish attractant…a good place to fish.

P: Is it a powerful current?

K: Oh yeah…

Okay, gentle readers, let’s talk some more about that current from Labadie. Listen in on this conversation I recorded with Dave Klaas as we gazed upon the power plant during our recent visit to Klondike Park.

Dave: About 10, could be even 20 years ago, there was a proposal by one of the whitewater rafting kayaking groups in STL…to turn the outflow channel into a kayaking run. And they got a lot of press…there were a couple big articles in the paper. I think the main problem ended up being money…and getting all the political people lined up to agree with them. I think it was a good idea.

Later that day I did an internet search on the Labadie kayak thing and found that the idea is not quite dead. Here’s a paragraph from a 2021 letter from the American Canoe Association to the public and to Ameren:

The American Canoe Association (ACA) is excited to hear about the possibility of another paddlesports venue in the United States. We understand that Ameren is making significant investments to move toward a net-zero carbon emissions goal by 2050, and that within the scope of those investments and necessary environmental upgrades, there may be an opportunity for the development of a whitewater park at the Labadie Plant. We understand the project is in the early stages, but are very excited about the possibility of having another Olympic Standard whitewater park in the U.S. that could host major national and international events, in addition to broadening the scope of healthy outdoor recreation opportunities for people in Missouri.

Gentle folks, I’m flipping the breaker on this story, but first I must tell you that a fellow housepainter/carpenter, Danny Niederschulte, passed away June 26th. I guess you could say he was one of my competitors in the Augusta area, but there was plenty work for everyone, and Danny was certainly a likeable guy. Farewell, Dan.

Keep cool and stay curious.


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