Black River News noted last week that comments could still submitted about the panel recommended proposals for the five million in fines demanded of Ameren by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for the Taum Sauk reservoir failure. Though I don’t live in the area, I had thought about submitting comments, to Ameren, and also to Thomas LoVullo, FERC contact, at

I eventually missed the window of opportunity to make such comments, because I kept getting struck by how much this money was seen as more of windfall than a penalty and remedy.

A panel representing the community was created to review the proposals submitted, and to make recommendations. They established their own guidelines:

We consciously made a decision early in the selection process to focus on building and repairing existing but resource-strapped entities, instead of land purchases and acquisition of new properties for environmental purposes.

We believe that our recommendations are entirely consistent with the criteria established in the FERC Stipulation and Consent Agreement and the Panel’s collective understanding of the local community and relative value to the community of each application. Therefore, we are confident that the recommended applications/projects are an appropriate and worthy use of the funds.

We have been thorough in our reviews, and believe we have collectively determined critical needs for the affected region of Reynolds and Iron Counties.

By addressing critical needs, the committee has set an awkward precedent: how long will the community be dependent on this event in order to meet its needs? What happens when the windfall funds associated with this event, run dry?

Most of the requests that were recommended by the committee were for items that one would think would be funded by traditional lines of revenue: the school roof, the sheriff’s car, the road equipment. I grant the items might be needed, and the money well spent, but I have to ask: if the dam at Taum Sauk hadn’t broken, how would these items be funded? We have to assume that a school needs a decent roof, and the law enforcement reliable transportation. Surely, though, the community can’t hope for disasters of this magnitude happening on a frequent enough basis to continue funding required items such as these?

Seems to me that using the money for such effort is not building toward the future, because in the future, where then will the community get its funds for the schools, the police, and the roads? Wouldn’t a better course of action be for the community to work with the people and the state to ensure adequate funding for such critical items? Then it wouldn’t be dependent on one individual corporation, or windfalls from said corporation’s irresponsible acts in order to meet it’s minimum needs.

To demonstrate what I’m saying, I also have bills to pay and needs to be met. My mother owns a home, my roommate has a company provided life insurance policy. If either of them were to die, I would benefit, and thus be able to pay my bills and meet my needs. Well, at least for now. However, a more appropriate approach to bill paying is to seek work that gives me money, more or less on a basis, in order to pay my bills–not wait for someone I care about to kick.

Returning to the recommended projects, other of the items, such as funding for an ad campaign for a hospital and new medical equipment for a privately owned medical center, seemed to me to be dubious uses of the money. At best. Even ‘good’ uses of the money, such as the new play ground and the equipment for the handicap work center don’t strike me as really fitting the proposal to the event that occurred to generate this money. More than that, it’s using the money as a bandage so that the community doesn’t have to face what seems to me to be a persistent problem with funding, and perhaps too much of a reliance on one source for that funding.

I was disappointed when two proposals were not accepted, not the least of which only one, the Nature Conservancy’s request for funding to provide better access to a rare fens area, is the only request that actually meets all three of the FERC guidelines–it’s related to environmental protection, it provides educational opportunities and through tourism, enhances economic development, as well as enhances the quality of life. Of course, the original FERC guidelines are a bit fuzzy:

Enhance economic development and quality of life

Provide environmental protection – including preservation of animal habitats at or near the Taum Sauk Plant

Develop or promote educational and/or recreational opportunities, including hydropower education at or near the plant and including access to these opportunities for disabled persons.

I would say that “enhance economic development and quality of life” is the same as telling Ameren to be agin’ sin.

Mapping these guidelines directly to the event, though, does provide a more structured view of the requirements. The fens area development could not only increase access to one of the rarest of such in the world, it could also help provide a tourist alternative to Johnson’s, while it’s closed for ‘repair’ (for how long is another vast mystery).

There was a second project dismissal that disappointed me–to begin the process of bringing in broadband access. This one was eliminated almost from the start, yet it also was one of the few that met two of the guidelines: economic development and educational, as well as recreational opportunities.

With the Taum Sauk dam breaking, the resulting effects could be a lemons-to-lemonade opportunity for the community by providing educational outreach for those wanting to study the after effects. I would imagine that there are geology and environmental, not to mention other departments, at colleges for hundreds of miles around that would love the opportunity to send classes to the area to get field research. A huge chunk of the mountain was taken down to bedrock, providing a unique opportunity to get a first hand look at the geology of the Ozarks. How an event like this can impact on the environment, possible field studies for engineering students and so on could be a way of bringing in significant numbers of people to help offset some of the losses due to reduced tourism.

Heck, refocused in this manner, the event could even be a boon to tourism.

More than that, the effects from the dam break could have served as a bridge between the local communities–nestled in their river-based valleys, surrounded by the gentle beauty of cell and satellite signal-destructing hills–and the wider world. Instead, the money is being spent on ad campaigns for a local hospital, and a new road grader, I believe it was.

The area still has this opportunity, but one thing efforts like this need are reliable access to the internet. In particular, having access to the internet would allow those with physical challenges to participate, vicariously, in the researches.

In addition, having access to the internet would enable the small companies, shops, campgrounds, restaurants, and artists in the area to expand their internet-enabled outreach. Right now, phone modem access is not effective when monitoring store transactions, or loading higher resolution photographs–or for communicating, providing videos, or any of the other new media that’s become so important to today’s businesses.

Then there’s the ability to offer broadband internet access to tourists in the area–perhaps even a wireless network at Johnson’s itself. This would certainly be compatible with the plans for the re-building of Johnson’s, with its dual research and education centers.

What could it have done for the students to take the place of their new roof? Open up a vista of internet taught classes that are just now starting to be offered to students across the state. That’s what was confusing about rejecting this choice, because Missouri prides itself on the advances made in remote teaching. Instead of a roof, which will go leaky in five years, give them the world. And don’t worry: it’s not all porn.

Better yet: give them both. What would the school had done if the dam hadn’t broke? Then that’s what the school should do now, and let the ‘windfall’ money go to efforts that build to the future, rather than be used to smooth gaps in the a funding system that’s obviously broken.

Oh there is money set aside for tourism outreach. A hundred grand. If the organization that manages this is the same one that led previous efforts, all I can say is: what a waste. This strikes me as more an effort to enrich a few, while the many are still dangling, caught out by Community and Government Leaders who Know Best.

One item that was recommended was the creation of cellphone towers. Why, then, broadband wasn’t added as a complementary effort is hard to say–other than I wonder how much corporate and community leaders want the local citizens to have better access to better communication facilities.

Now, what’s happened by having most of the money go to meet ‘critical’ needs is that the community has been given money to meet these needs today, with little effort made to meet the needs of tomorrow. I guess it can hope that the dam Ameren builds now will break in a decade or so, and the community given another windfall. Seems like a rather harsh funding model, to me.

The fact that our rural communities are not getting the support from the state, or communities such as St. Louis, should be faced directly. The citizens should be in their representative’s faces, asking why a dam had to break in order to get a new school roof. Windfalls are not a good way to fund schools.

Speaking of windfall, that led to another concern I had: why is it that no one contested the ten million that FERC pocketed from the Ameren fine? After all, FERC was a co-participant in the events leading up to the dam breaking. The FERC engineers who inspected the dam gave it a passing grade, year after year. The latest was published just the day before the dam broke.

Yet rather than be criticized, chastised, or even questioned, FERC receives what amounts to a windfall from its negligence. You see now? That’s why I can’t be a politician. I can’t for the life of me understand why a government agency that screws up so badly can be rewarded so richly.

FERC instructs Ameren to give five million to the community, with part of it already set aside for an emergency system in the area. Then while everyone hovers over that money, it quietly gathers it’s pile of loot and heads off into the sunset, with nary a comment from local and state governments, and the press.

Ah well, vaster minds than mine must comprehend all of this. Too bad this is too late for the Ameren/FERC meetings today: perhaps they could have explained how all this works.

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