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We’ve all heard the right-wing story about how regulation cripples industry and if we leave it to the “free-market,” its invisible hand will point us to just the right degree of industrial self-regulation to allow a happy-ever after ending. These claims about a beneficent market-place came to my mind as I read a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story about how two Ameren waste ponds near the Labadie plant, filled with toxic coal ash, have been leaking into the surrounding area, potentially contaminating ground water.

There is, of course, no objective evidence that such contamination is occurring – which, as the Post-Dispatch article points out, is not surprising since “neither the state nor the company has ever tested the area for contamination.” Surprised by that? It gets better:

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the agency charged with regulating coal ash ponds and enforcing the Clean Water Act in the state, isn’t required to monitor groundwater at the site under current state laws. But it has legal authority to do so under the plant’s water permit and hasn’t – despite learning of the leaks from Ameren 19 years ago, according to utility filings with the DNR.

What’s more, the water discharge permit for the state’s largest coal-fired power plant, a hulking 2,300-megawatt facility, expired 12 years ago. Ameren applied for a permit renewal in 1998, but the department has yet to finish its review. Yet under state law, the plant can legally continue operating under the existing 1994 permit.

Wonder why whenever I hear about how much better states do local regulation, the word “cronyism” pops into my mind? I’m not making any accusations, you understand, just asking. Perhaps the Post-Dispatch puts it better when it quotes those who simply blame “lax state regulations or poor enforcement.” They probably should have added foot-dragging, maybe even purposeful foot-dragging. They did point out the solution:

The loose regulatory environment underscores the need for federal rules that give states less leeway to ignore potential problems, advocates argue.

Could anything be more emblematic of the way the business model fails the public good than Ameren’s environmental failures? Or the way that it corrupts local government efforts to do so? Or why privatizing public services doesn’t necessarily work for the public good? Perhaps if Ameren didn’t have to worry about preserving its profit margin, it might be able to operate in a more responsible way.

Yet right now we’ve got at least one would-be GOP presidential contender, Mitt Romney, gassing on about how he’d be a better choice than his main rival because he’s been a businessman rather than a public servant.  Romney, who capitalized on the destructive merger mania of the 1980s and 90s to build a fortune,  claims  our present economic predicament shows that we need a successful businessman – just like those whose greed caused the great recession of 2008 – to get us out of the predicament they created. Here at home, Ameren, while refusing to test ground water around the Labadie plant, claims that there’s no problem at all – just give them a permit and let them continue to do what they’ve been doing all along and it’ll all be okey-dokey.

Did I forget to tell you black is white and white is now officially black? But it’s OK – the right folks are going to continue getting richer and richer.

* First sentence of third paragraph from bottom edited for clarity.