Great Rivers Environmental Law Center

Water Protection Groups File Notice to Sue Ameren over Toxic Coal Ash Pollution Violations

Pictured: Ameren’s Sioux Power Station at the confluence between the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers during a flooding event on June 3, 2019. Photo by D. Hoeferlin.

Waterkeeper Alliance, Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper, and Great Rivers Environmental Law Center today announced that they have served Ameren Corporation, Missouri’s largest electric utility company, with a notice of intent to sue the company to stop significant and ongoing violations of the federal Clean Water Act due to continuing unpermitted discharges of toxic coal ash pollutants from the company’s Sioux Energy Center in St. Charles County outside of St. Louis.


Coal ash, a by-product of burning coal, contains multiple contaminants known to be associated with long-term human health and ecological risks, including mercury, boron, sulfate, cadmium, molybdenum, lead, and arsenic.

The groups allege that Ameren is storing over 3 million tons of coal ash in a massive unlined disposal pit on the banks of the Mississippi River, one of its backwater chutes, and Poeling Lake, within the floodplain.

According to Ameren’s own records for the Sioux Energy facility, the disposal pit is discharging toxic coal ash pollutants into the shallow groundwater beneath the site and, ultimately, into the adjacent surface waters, including the Mississippi River.  

“There could not be a worse place to leave this waste forever and allow the pollution to be released into the Mississippi River for decades to come. Fortunately, we believe the Supreme Court’s decision in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund confirms that the Clean Water Act controls discharges through groundwater into protected surface waters like the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Ameren cannot continue to discharge toxic coal ash pollution to these rivers in violation of the Clean Water Act and must take action to remove the waste and clean up the pollution at the site.” 
– Bob Menees, Great Rivers Environmental Law Center Staff Attorney

The decision to move forward with the notice comes after years of urging the utility to take voluntary action to address the human health and environmental hazards at Sioux Energy by cleaning up the leaking coal ash disposal pit and managing the waste outside the floodplain to prevent illegal pollution discharges.

Ameren declined to do so—opting instead to permanently dispose of the toxic waste in the illegally discharging, unlined pit that sits in the floodplain between two of our nation’s greatest river systems—the Mississippi River and Missouri River. 

“It is well known that unlined coal ash disposal pits release toxic pollutants into groundwater and connected waterways,” said Kelly Hunter Foster of Waterkeeper Alliance. “It is also well known that coal ash is toxic and can cause significant harm to plants, wildlife, and human health—including cancer, heart disease, and lasting brain damage in children. It is dangerous to dump coal ash in a pit and allow it to be discharged into our waters.”

The organizations say that Ameren attempted to justify its decision to leave coal ash buried in such dangerous conditions by providing severely inflated cost estimates for removing the waste that are significantly higher than costs for similar cleanups at other sites in the U.S. In the twelve months ending September 30, 2020, Ameren reported gross profits of $4.519 billion

You can read the filed notice here.

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center is a Missouri-based public interest law firm that provides free and reduced-fee services to individuals, organizations and citizen groups working to protect the environment and public health. We receive no government funding and rely on donations to sustain our work.

Evergy Withdraws Proposal to Charge Missouri Customers for Electricity They Did Not Use

A couple struggles with their bills

For all its devastation, the pandemic had at least one silver lining: customers across the state reduced their carbon footprints.

Unfortunately, the reduced demand (and revenue) didn’t sit well with Evergy, one of Missouri’s largest electric utilities. The utility petitioned their regulating authority to charge customers for that lost revenue – to pay for what they did not use.

Missourians are struggling to stay afloat during this pandemic. The last thing they need is to be asked to bail out shareholders.

Great Rivers attorneys Bruce Morrison, Sarah Rubenstein and Henry Robertson represented the Sierra Club in advocating before state regulators against Evergy’s plan to prioritize profits ahead of people. 

Today we are pleased to announce that Evergy has dropped their plan, resulting in savings for up to 1.6 million customers.  

Read the press release from Sierra Club here.

Read the Public Service Commission’s order here.

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center is a Missouri-based public interest law firm that provides free and reduced-fee services to individuals, organizations and citizen groups working to protect the environment and public health. We receive no government funding and rely on donations to sustain our work.

Great Rivers Files Title VI Complaint Against Missouri Department of Natural Resources

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center has filed a Title VI Complaint on behalf of Dutchtown South Community Corporation (“DSCC”) and the St. Louis Branch of the NAACP (“NAACP”) with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) against the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (“MDNR”), to oppose the MDNR’s recent decision to issue a Clean Air Act operating permit to Kinder Morgan Transmix Company.

What is MDNR?

The MDNR is a state environmental agency charged with the protection of Missouri’s air, land, water and mineral resources, preserving unique natural and historic places, providing recreational and learning opportunities, while promoting the environmentally sound and energy-efficient operations of businesses, communities, agriculture, and industry for the benefit of all Missourians. MDNR receives much of its funding from the EPA.

What is Title VI?

Title VI is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It precludes discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in connection with any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. In the environmental context, Title VI mandates that a state agency accepting EPA funding may not issue a permit to a polluting facility in a way that results in a discriminatory effect on predominantly minority or low-income communities. A discriminatory effect results when an agency’s decisions cause a predominantly minority or low-income community to shoulder significantly more environmental impact or pollution than other communities. Further, Title VI requires that the agencies funded by the EPA allow impacted communities substantial involvement in agency decision-making processes, particularly through permitting efforts.

Who is Kinder Morgan?

Kinder Morgan, one of America’s largest energy infrastructure companies, was co-founded by two former Enron Corporation executives over 20 years ago. In 1997, Richard Kinder, who had just resigned after six years in his roles as president and chief operating officer of Enron, teamed up with another former Enron executive, Bill Morgan, to buy Enron Liquids Pipeline Company from Enron for $40 million. Soon after, they renamed the company Kinder Morgan. Today, the company is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and is valued at just under 32 billion dollars. Forbes magazine lists Kinder, who stepped down as CEO in 2015 but remains its executive chairman, as the 67th richest American with an estimated net worth of $6.3 billion.

In St. Louis, Kinder Morgan operates a 16.5 acre bulk transport loading facility for gasoline and other fuel oil products. At this facility, the company receives and stores fuel on site, and loads fuels into tanks and onto transport vehicles. The facility is located just south and east of First and Barton Streets, within close proximity of the Dutchtown, Marine Villa, Mt. Pleasant and Gravois Park neighborhoods.

What are the potential health impacts from Kinder Morgan?

Kinder Morgan’s operations at its South St. Louis facility result in emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), particulate matter less than ten microns in diameter (PM10), sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and carbon monoxide (CO). Exposure to these compounds can cause a variety of negative health effects including cancer, heart disease, asthma, lung disease, adverse birth outcomes, and diabetes. In addition, the facility has the potential to catastrophically harm nearby residents in the event of an accidental release of the highly volatile compounds, large quantities of which are stored at the facility. Further, the facility subjects nearby residents to increased risk of fire and explosion that could be caused by ignition of flammable vapors or gases from the materials stored at the plant.

How has MDNR violated Title VI?

In issuing the Kinder Morgan permit, the MDNR blatantly failed to comply with Title VI in two ways.

First, the MDNR’s decision to permit the Kinder Morgan facility has resulted in a disparate discriminatory impact on minority communities that already are disproportionately affected by multiple sources of air pollution. It is indisputable that Kinder Morgan is located adjacent to several predominantly minority, low-income neighborhoods. It is also indisputable that the Dutchtown neighborhoods are heavily impacted by industrial air pollution, as well as by air pollution caused by traffic, demolition, and other sources of air pollution. As a result, the MDNR’s decision to permit the Kinder Morgan facility has contributed to a discriminatory and disparate impact on the Dutchtown neighborhoods.

Second, MDNR has violated Title VI by failing to ensure any meaningful public involvement in its decision to grant an air pollution permit to Kinder Morgan. In fact, MDNR has failed to adopt any kind of Title VI program, as it is clearly required to do by the statute.

Our Title VI Complaint asks the EPA to address both of these issues.

Thank you to NPR for their coverage of this complaint! You can read more at:

Great Rivers Doubles Down in Fight Against Maryland Heights Floodplain Development

“When you’re hiking in the wetlands, do you really want to be walking through a giant, light-industrial, manufacturing, commercial complex with giant buildings?” asks Bob Menees, a lawyer at Great Rivers Environmental Law Center.

It’s a future scenario Great Rivers has been fighting since early this year as we work to protect nearly 2,500 acres of Missouri River floodplain from development. The mostly undeveloped land and farmland sits adjacent to Creve Coeur Lake Park, abutting wetlands considered by the National Audubon Society to be an “urban oasis” for many migrating waders, waterfowl, and shorebirds, and the bird watchers who come to see them.

Missouri Wetlands
Creve Coeur Lake provides excellent habitat for wading birds like the Great Egret and other Herons during their spring migration when mudflats are exposed.

Good progress has been made to protect this ecologically rich area, but the fight goes on. Earlier this year, Bob Menees and fellow Great Rivers’ attorney Sarah Rubenstein helped stop the creation of a TIF district that would have had taxpayers subsidizing the development to the tune of $151 million dollars. The victory was significant for those who do not want to see their tax dollars go to this environmentally destructive and economically short-sighted idea. Unfortunately, the setback did not deter the developer from continuing their pursuit of the area, who in response to the loss of this taxpayer financing simply modified its proposal and continued to push it forward (a revealing move, considering the TIF’s supporters’ urgent earlier insistence that tax abatement handouts were necessary for private development of the area).

This October, Bob Menees further championed the area through helping to successfully curtail the developer’s plan to extend their construction’s footprint into Creve Coeur Park. The overreach into the park would have been blatantly illegal, since the developer had not first secured the approval of the public through a countywide vote.

It seems the dollar signs in the developer’s eyes are so tantalizing that despite both these defeats and the condemnation of environmental groups and the public alike it continues to try to push this foolish plan forward. As the battle rages on, Great Rivers will continue to mount the most vigorous possible legal defense against the destruction of this special place.

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center is a nonprofit Missouri-based public interest law firm that works to protect the environment and public health, and empower ordinary citizens to stand up for their environmental interests. We receive no government funding and rely on donations to sustain our work.

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center Selected to Best Law Firms in America 2021

Best Lawyers®, the oldest and most highly respected peer review guide to excellence in the legal profession, has named Great Rivers Environmental Law Center to its 2021 edition of The Best Law Firms in America in the practice area of Environmental Litigation.

For over seventeen years, Great Rivers has served the state of Missouri and beyond, providing free and reduced-fee legal services to individuals, organizations, and citizen groups who are working to protect the environment and public health. We work through the courts and administrative agencies to safeguard the environment by enforcing environmental laws, especially air and water pollution laws, and laws intended to protect wetlands, floodplains, open space, and endangered species. The issues which we address often have national significance, although the majority of our work is within Missouri and Illinois. Great Rivers is Missouri’s first and only public interest law firm focused on the environment and public health. We work across Missouri and Southern Illinois to preserve what matters most.

Helpful Election Resources as we Near November 3

The Federal and Missouri general elections are coming up in just a few short weeks on Tuesday, November 3. Stay up to date, get prepared, and know your resources for what’s on the ballot and how to protect yours and others voting rights at the polls. Here are some of the resources our team at Great Rivers is using this election season:

Missouri Voter Protection Hotline: (866) 687-8683

*Will also be answering calls live on election day, also serving Illinois

National Voter Protection Hotline: (833) 336-8693

For detailed information about what’s on the ballot:

Great Rivers Joins Petition Opposing Weakening of Endangered Species Act Guidelines

A monarch butterfly lands on Echinacea

October 8, 2020

A petition urging the preservation of important habitat designation rules was submitted this Friday to the U.S. Department of the Interior by a coalition of environment and conservation groups across the country. The letter read as follows:

“Dear Secretary Bernhardt:

On behalf of our millions of members and supporters nationwide, we urge you to withdraw the two recent proposed rules related to habitat designation under the Endangered Species Act. Protection of habitat is central to the conservation of imperiled species. The ESA’s purpose is to conserve, “the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend,” as well as protect and recover endangered species and threatened species themselves. Designation of critical habitat is a key tool authorized by the ESA to ensure habitat, including unoccupied habitat needed for recovery, is conserved. Weakening agencies’ authority to protect such habitat would be a severe blow to the efficacy of the Act and its ability to spare species from extinction.
On August 5, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed two definitions of the word “habitat.” Both options would limit rather than enhance the Services’ ability to conserve species that may require habitat restoration or that may find their historic range shifting as a result of climate change. The options presented in this rule are unclear and potentially limiting at best, and explicitly restrictive at worst.

“On September 4, 2020, the USFWS proposed new regulations that would expand the agency’s ability to exclude areas essential to the conservation of threatened and endangered species from designation as critical habitat under the ESA. Among other problematic provisions, it states that the USFWS must exclude areas when the costs of designating them outweigh the benefits (except in cases where extinction will result). This is more restrictive than the ESA itself, which states the agency “may” exclude such areas. The proposal also reverses a longstanding presumption against excluding areas based upon economic considerations on public lands. These changes would grant economic considerations outsized weight in decisions about habitat that should prioritize species’ recovery needs and be driven by the best available science.

Research shows that critical habitat designations do not affect all private development. In fact, the ESA restricts only federal actions destroying or adversely modifying critical habitat; private activities that do not require federal permits are unaffected, and those requiring federal permits can generally proceed with minor, but essential, modifications to protect imperiled species.

Properly implemented, critical habitat designations advance the ESA’s recovery goals by striking a science-driven balance between conservation and economic activity.

[T]his is a moment when—more than ever—we need strong and effective conservation laws. One million species are at risk of extinction, many within decades, due to human activity, according to a devastating May 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The report warns that the health of ecosystems upon which humans and all other species depend is deteriorating globally at unprecedented rates, with grave implications for our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide.

Protecting our natural heritage—including threatened and endangered species—is a core American value. We urge you to help save our most imperiled plants and animals from extinction by strongly and fully implementing the ESA and by withdrawing these two proposed rules.”

You can see the petition and its signatory parties here.

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center is a nonprofit Missouri-based public interest law firm that works to protect the environment and public health, and empower ordinary citizens to stand up for their environmental interests. We receive no government funding and rely on donations to sustain our work.

A Tribute to Wayne Goode

“A great ‘white hat’ legislator his entire career.”

“A wonderful, generous, conscientious public citizen.”

“He always fought for justice.

“We have lost a hero and a friend.”

These were just a few of the messages which flooded my mailbox after Wayne Goode passed away a few days ago.

Wayne dedicated much of his life to serving Missouri’s people, first in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate. He sponsored the state’s first hazardous waste law in 1977. He sponsored legislation for groundwater protection, drinking water standards, and cleaning up waste disposal sites.  He was a champion for Missouri’s environment.

At Great Rivers Wayne served on our Board of Directors for many years.  He guided our way, always generous with his time, always sharing his sound judgment and wisdom.  I know that Wayne lived a full life.  I know that Wayne possessed the wisdom of someone who had lived two full lives.

Our hearts are heavy today.  We have lost a guiding light and a dear friend. 

Bruce Morrison
President, Great Rivers Environmental Law Center

Great Rivers Expands Capacity to Protect Region’s Most Vulnerable Children

Madeline Middlebrooks will fight dangerous lead contamination in local schools’ drinking water.

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center is delighted to announce the addition of Madeline Middlebrooks to our legal team in a full-time capacity.

Motivated by the environmental injustices in her grandmother’s North St. Louis community and inspired by the belief that one’s zip code should not determine their access to clean air and water, Madeline decided early to devote her talents to the public good.  She left Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, to attend the University of Oregon. After earning a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies and minors in both Geography and Nonprofit Management, she pursued the study of law at the University of Denver.

During her time at Denver University, Madeline gained significant real-world experience in public interest law. She interned at Environment Colorado, Earthjustice, Siegal Public Affairs, and the Colorado Supreme Court before joining Great Rivers as an intern for her 2nd and 3rd year summer internships. In her spare time at Denver University, she created the institution’s first-ever multicultural room to allow students from a wide variety of backgrounds to come together and celebrate and learn from each other’s experiences. She also served as an active board member of Denver Law’s Black Law Student Association.

Madeline’s work at Great Rivers will focus on addressing the lead contamination crisis in St. Louis Public Schools. In even small quantities, lead can cause irreversible damage to children’s mental and physical development. It is unconscionable that children who already face difficult backgrounds and struggling school district be harmed with an additional burden of pollution in their bodies.

Great Rivers has worked through the courts since 2002 to ensure that our neighbors have clean air, safe water, and healthy, protected wild lands. We are thrilled to have Madeline join Great Rivers in our work to ensure that all Missourian’s – especially our most vulnerable children – have a legal advocate to defend their environment and health.

When she’s not saving the world, Madeline likes to explore our state parks, play with her corgi Moe Taters and make soups from scratch.  She and her fiance’ Greg live in St. Charles, Missouri.

Madeline joins us as an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Faber Daeufer and Itrato, PC. To learn more about Madeline and her work, you can read a great write-up by Equal Justice Works here.

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center is a Missouri-based public interest law firm that provides free and reduced-fee services to individuals, organizations and citizen groups working to protect the environment and public health. We receive no government funding and rely on donations from the community to sustain our work.

COVID and Climate Change: The Power of Collective Action

If we can take anything from COVID-19, it’s that we are not separate from nature as much as we’d like to believe.

No matter where we may be or how removed we are from the mercy of the natural world, we still live within it, not above it. Our economy is overrun with businesses that have operated off the idea that polluting and draining natural resources are mere externalities, not damages to a system that we ultimately rely on. Coronavirus is showing us otherwise.

Instead of despairing over what seems like the harbinger of irreversible change, we can, and should, use this opportunity to consider what we can learn from this.

The First Takeaway: Collective action matters.

As we’ve seen from the global response to the spread of coronavirus in effort to “flatten the curve,” individual behaviors together can actually have an extraordinary impact.

It’s easy to justify using a plastic water bottle instead of a reusable one with the thinking, “not using one plastic bottle won’t save the environment.”

In the face of an issue as large as global warming, making an individual effort can seem like a hopelessly ineffectual endeavor. The effects of massive quarantines on the environment revealed the power of collective action: animals began returning to public spaces, China banned wildlife trade along with their emissions being reduced by a quarter, and New York’s carbon monoxide levels nearly halved. Sadly, as normal activity resumes, these changes revert, but we should use this as evidence of the strength of collective influence.

If everybody decided to reuse more and consume less, we would see a startling impact. Simply taking the subway or metro reduces emissions per passenger mile by 76% and encourages energy conservation. Carpooling saves 20 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon that your friend would have used to drive themselves. Other things we can do are to reduce food waste – 40% of America’s food supply goes straight to the trash – and try to switch to renewable energy. Even the littlest efforts toward saving resources can have impacts through the supply chain and reduce carbon emissions.

The Second Takeaway: Continuing the status quo will only get more dangerous.

As the climate continues to warm, humans will see consequences in the forms of resurfacing of ancient viruses, the spreading of existing ones, and potentially unknown repercussions.

The more we destroy the environment and its natural systems, the more pandemics we will invite. Trapped in the rapidly-melting Arctic sheets are diseases that haven’t been seen in the world in millions of years, for which humans lack immunity. In 2016, a young Russian boy died and 20 others were infected when a reindeer killed by anthrax was melted from the permafrost. Residuals of the 1918 flu that killed nearly 3 percent of the world’s population have been found by scientists in Alaska.

Even more concerning are preexisting diseases that could be evolved or spread by climate change. The tropics are currently expanding 30 miles per decade because of warming, bringing with it an expanding range of tropical disease. Yellow fever, once confined to the Amazon Basin, has spread into metropolitan areas. Malaria and Lyme are both diseases likely to be spread by warming as well. Historically, disease was often limited by area and would stay contained to a local population. Globalization has exacerbated the risk of which we are facing the consequences today – consider what may have happened if the Black Death, which wiped out more than half of Europe, had existed at the same time as airplanes.

For all the knowledge we have about potential impacts, it’s likely there is much about the challenges climate change will impose on human health that we remain completely in the dark about. In May 2015, almost two-thirds of the population of small antelopes called “saiga” in Central Asia were extinguished in a “megadeath” over only a few days. The area of land strewn with bodies was approximately the size of Florida. The cause, which initially perplexed scientists, was eventually discovered to be a bacteria living in their tonsils, previously harmless to their hosts and weaponized by the particularly hot and humid weather that season. In terms of impacts on humans, scientists know next-to-nothing about 99 percent of the bacteria living in our bodies – and certainly cannot predict how climate change will affect them.

At some point, we will all be facing the effects of climate change with the same urgency and panic, and again we will be wishing we did something while we could.

It can be generally agreed that most of the world was unprepared for COVID-19. In America, we are seeing the alarming results of our belief that we could stay uniquely isolated from such a pandemic, a reflection of our belief that we can stay isolated from nature. There are parallels throughout: the pandemic provokes uncertainty for the near future, and on a larger scale, climate change destabilizes the future entirely. The rapidity of the pandemic’s development makes it all the more glaring. At some point, we will all be facing the effects of climate change with the same urgency and panic, and again we will be wishing we did something while we could.

No matter how insurmountable climate change seems, we still have a chance to tackle it. Of course, without minimizing the need for change in the larger systems of government and business, we cannot underestimate the impact of our own actions. While we fight for essential structural changes in our laws and policies, we can be conscientious of the mentality we all have towards the way we live day-to-day. We may all feel like specks within a massive system, but we are still a part of the whole. We have to begin to think as such.

Jessica King is a rising senior at Washington University in St. Louis studying English and computer science. Originally from the Bay Area, Jessica is hoping to pursue a sustainability graduate degree and work as an environmental consultant after she graduates. She has been a lover of nature since she was a child building fairy houses in trees and still loves to camp and hike. When she’s not working on WashU’s satirical paper or doing volunteer teaching at schools about environmental issues, Jessica enjoys listening to music and writing eco-poetry.


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