Taum Sauk Area Threatened by Hydro Plant on Church Mountain

The most seriously threatened landscape in the state park system during the three decades of MPA’s existence is the wild vista of the St. Francois Mountains in Taum Sauk Mountain State Park. In 2001, AmerenUE sought a preliminary permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to prepare for a pumped storage hydroelectric project on Church Mountain, which was and still is under lease to the state park system for public trails. Recognizing the threat that such a development would pose to the wildest, most intact, and most ecologically diverse landscape in the state park system, MPA rallied its own members and other conservation groups, quickly organized as the Taum Sauk Coalition, to express their views in letters to FERC, Ameren, and key state officials; MPA also prepared for its first-ever lawsuit to intervene in the FERC proceedings. As a result of this effort, Ameren suddenly withdrew its application to FERC, saying they had listened to the citizens of Missouri, and MPA and the Taum Sauk Coalition celebrated a stunning victory.

Four years later, in the summer of 2005, it became apparent to MPA that Ameren was once again considering building a hydroelectric plant on Church Mountain. Then, shortly after 5 a.m. in the cold pre-dawn of December 14, Ameren’s existing Taum Sauk pumped storage reservoir atop the neighboring Proffit Mountain catastrophically ruptured, sending more than a billion gallons of water and debris roaring down the mountainside to tear the heart out of the adjoining Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park. Miraculously, no one was killed, though the home of the park superintendent disintegrated and his wife and young children were swept into the raging torrent. As it became apparent during the next few years that Ameren was seriously culpable for one of the most catastrophic dam failures in American history, the firm reached a $180 million settlement with the state that provided for the rebuilding of Johnson’s Shut-Ins and funds for several other park projects. MPA, knowing of the continuing threat to Church Mountain, asked that it be transferred to the state as part of the settlement, but Governor Blunt instead sought funds for the extension of Katy Trail via the Rock Island Line to Kansas City.

In the meantime, Ameren has completely rebuilt its reservoir atop Proffit Mountain and the plant is again in operation. MPA went to court in 2007 to seek a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the rebuild, arguing that the nearly 50-year-old plant had never had the benefit of a public licensing process and it was already due for relicensing, a proceeding that would be rendered moot if the plant were already rebuilt. But FERC argued that the rebuild was simply a “repair,” and the EIS was denied. FERC has extended the 2010 deadline for the relicensing, and both MPA and the Department of Natural Resources have requested the transfer of Church Mountain to the state as a condition of the relicensing, but it remains to be seen what will happen. At this point, a new Church Mountain hydro plant is still the greatest potential threat to the state park system.

Download the 2001 article that alerted Missourians to the threat to Church Mountain
Read the Heritage article about the catastrophic failure of the Taum Sauk Reservoir in 2005
Read MPA’s 2007 letter about the rebuild of the Taum Sauk Reservoir
Read MPA’s 2011 comments on the relicensing of the Taum Sauk hydro plant
Read DNR’s 2011 comments on the relicensing of the Taum Sauk hydro plant
Read MPA's 2013 comments on the relicensing of the Taum Sauk hydro plant
Search for other articles about Taum Sauk, Church Mountain, and Johnson’s Shut-Ins in Heritage

Taum Sauk Article

When state park officials selected a cover photo to illustrate their first-ever assessment of "threats to the parks" nearly a decade ago, they chose not a scene of despoliation but a symbolic representation of the best of what they were seeking to protect. It was a vista at the core of the Ozarks, looking from the state's grandest waterfall near its tallest peak across its deepest valley into the heart of Taum Sauk Mountain State Park, Missouri's then-newest public park but also its geologically oldest, wildest, most intact, and most ecologically diverse landscape.

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