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Anyone who says rural Missouri offers no exposure to theater and the arts must have missed the amazing production hosted by the Franklin County Planning and Zoning Commission at East Central College last night.    The 500 seat theater was filled almost to capacity with folks who came to hear AmerenUE officials and lawyers explain how building a 400 acre coal ash landfill next to the Missouri River would be a great way to store toxic waste safely.  Roughly 2/3 of the audience also wanted to present their thoughts on why this maybe isn’t such a good idea.

But, despite a long article in the local paper about this issue and an invitation to the public to attend the hearing last night, it turned out to be a bizarre game of “Let’s Pretend.”  At the outset, Planning and Zoning Vice Chair Kevin Kriete announced that speakers wanting to present their thoughts and opinions should NOT mention any specific landfill project.  Citizens, including a team of professional lawyers and engineers representing Ameren Corp, were told to speak only to the general issue of landfill regulations and the changes to those regs under consideration by the commission.

Act 1, Scene 1:  Lights, camera, action.    A totally flummoxed lawyer for Ameren did his best to present the bright and happy side of the company’s plan to totally surround the toxic waste with a berm of dirt that would never wash away in a flood.  Considering the restrictions imposed by the commission vice chair, the poor guy did a pretty good job of dancing around what he actually came to talk about.  While the audience pretended not to know he was actually talking about the Labadie plant and landfill,  a  huge photo of that very site was projected on the screen behind the commissioners.

Act 1, Scene 2:  An engineer familiar with Missouri state landfill regulations reassured the audience that all is well in the Show Me State.  Except when it’s not.   And a man who worked in coal-fired plants for over 40 years testified  that he’d never heard of anyone getting sick from coal dust.  Several members of the audience offered to meet with him after the hearing.

Although audience participation was strongly discouraged, a few rowdy theater goers demanded equal time to ask why the commission decided to rewrite the landfill zoning laws at this time when the Planning and Zoning Department is currently in the process of developing a new comprehensive plan.   Scottie Eagan, Interim Senior County Planner, played her part convincingly and admitted that the zoning regs rewrite was prompted by Ameren’s plan for the coal waste landfill.    But there’s the rub.  Ameren has not actually applied for permission to build the landfill, so there is no proposal on the table to be discussed specifically.

While audience members carefully juggled their willing suspension of disbelief with the reality hitting them in the face, the vice commission chair reminded each of the 20 or so citizens waiting to  speak against the landfill not to actually mention the landfill.

Act 2, Scene 1:  Maxine Lipeles  of Washington University School of Law offered a stunning performance as she represented members of the Labadie Environmental Organization, the strongest opponents of the coal waste landfill.  After a few introductory remarks about how the commissioners had been playing “cat and mouse” with the public on this issue, and without referring to the gigantic map of the Labadie plant on the screen behind the commissioners, she explained that the land being proposed for the landfill was actually under water in the 1993 flood.   “Our issue is that Ameren wants to put this landf …. or, somebody might want (laughter from audience) to put a landfill in that location,” Lipeles said.

By this time, the audience was totally confused but good naturedly willing to play along with the game plan.

When Ms. Lipeles asked when and if the Commission would hold a hearing specifically on the Ameren proposal for the landfill, Vice Chair Kriete reiterated that, since there is no actual application for a coal ash landfill, there is no need for a public hearing on it.  However, if concerned citizens would like to attend a regular meeting of the P & Z Commission on July 20, the topic might just come up again.

Act 2, Scene 2:  Now fully engaged in the pretense, opponents of the “non-proposal” for a coal ash landfill took the stage one at a time.  Some spoke eloquently of the dumping of coal ash on land that had been alive with trees, plants and a lake full of fish only to see everything wither and die.  Oops, we aren’t supposed to talk about coal ash.   Another player listed the 20 or so toxic elements in coal ash including mercury, lead and arsenic before being cut off by  vice chairman Mao.  The man who sold his farmland to Ameren tried to explain that he had been deceived by the company,  but, being a bit player, he was unceremoniously shuffled off stage.

One brave soul actually suggested that the commission go back to the drawing board, establish an ad hoc committee to study landfill issues and prepare some kind of plan based on current scientific thinking.   Loud applause.

Another participant read the P & Z Department mission statement which includes the goal of “protection of public, private and natural resources” of the county which didn’t seem to cause any particular discomfort to the main characters onstage.  In fact, Richard Wilson, County Public Works Director, asked members of the audience to offer their solutions for safe storage of coal ash to which someone shouted, “Ask Ameren. They did a five-year study and know what the alternatives are.”

Intermission at 9:30 p.m. came as a great relief to folks who had sat patiently, although totally confused, for close to three hours.   This writer left at that point with a sense of having participated in some of the best mystery theater available in small town America.