Great Rivers Environmental Law Center

Great Rivers Files Comments Challenging Legality of Cuts to NEPA

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center works to enforce environmental laws.

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center has filed comments challenging the Council on Environmental Quality’s proposed weakening of its regulations implementing the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA. Great Rivers is providing pro-bono representation to three state-based organizations: the Missouri Confluence Waterkeepers, the Missouri NAACP, and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

The changes would threaten local natural resources and exacerbate climate instability.

NEPA currently mandates that all major federal agencies undertaking actions that significantly affect the human environment prepare environmental impact statements. These environmental impact statements must analyze the effects of the proposed action and research any alternatives to the proposed action.

The changes, if implemented, would eliminate NEPA’s requirement that Federal agencies review the cumulative and indirect environmental impacts of proposed federal projects, a change which would lead to far-reaching and dangerous effects to our environment and public health.

While the combined, incremental effects of projects may be insignificant in themselves, they may accumulate over time, resulting in the degradation of our natural resources and in risks to human health. The proposed changes would also allow certain types of projects that have a huge environmental impact to forgo the NEPA process, such as industrial Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations seeking federal loans for the creation and expansion of factory farms.

Great Rivers asserts that the proposed changes would fly in the face of what is the clearly stated intention of the Act, which obligates the Federal Government to “use all practical means… to fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment on behalf of future generations.”

“Agencies cannot possibly act as trustees for the environment on behalf of future generations without considering the cumulative and indirect effects of their proposed actions,” wrote Sarah Rubenstein, lead attorney in Great Rivers’ filing.  

A project’s contribution to climate change is another cumulative effect which might no longer be considered.

“By their very nature, the effects of climate change are cumulative,” argued Henry Robertson, co-author of the filing and Climate and Energy Director of the Law Center.  “The proposed changes fail to capture the incremental yet global effect of greenhouse gases and thus miss NEPA’s point entirely.”

The changes would loosen requirements on decisions for permit applications, the adoption of federal land management actions, and the construction of highways, pipelines or other publicly-owned facilities.  

The comment review period ended on March 10. The CEQ has offered no indication as to when or if it intends to issue a final regulation, but if it does, the parties submitting comments may file suit to challenge the regulations.

Great Rivers Full Comments Can Be Read Here.
The full comments can be read 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 Represents NRDC, Advocates in favor of Energy Efficiency Programs

Environmental Lawyer Henry Robertson

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center is happy to support the utilities when they support energy efficiency measures – and oppose them when they want to keep burning coal. Great Rivers’s Climate and Energy Director Henry Robertson recently represented the Natural Resources Defense Council to advocate in favor of Evergy’s energy efficiency offerings to their customers. Evergy, formerly Kansas City Power & Light, is a utility providing energy to approximately 1/3 of Missouri and 1.6 million customers.

Evergy needed approval of their plan from the Public Service Commission,* but faced opposition from the Staff of the Commission, who argued that the only benefit from energy efficiency measures is the cost saved when you don’t have to build new or additional power plants years down the road. The Staff grossly underestimated the value that increased energy efficiency offerings would bring to the people of Missouri.

Great Rivers’ Climate and Energy Director Henry Robertson argued that the benefits of energy efficiency are myriad – while the reduction in the need for future capital investment is valuable, it certainly is not the only benefit.

“Energy efficiency saves energy and therefore money – no kilowatt-hour is cheaper than the kilowatt-hour you don’t have to use. ”


Henry Robertson
Climate and Energy Program Director, Great Rivers Environmental Law Center

Energy efficiency also reduces the pollution that jeopardizes public health, and the greenhouse gas emissions that choke our atmosphere.   While customers must pay the utility to administer the programs, this cost is greatly outweighed by these benefits.

On Decemer 13, 2019, the PSC granted approval of Evergy’s plan, with some modifications. As a result, Evergy will be able to invest $96 million dollars in energy efficiency programs and achieve an anticipated $234 million in customer savings. 

Measures to increase energy efficiency programs such as those Evergy proposed can be especially helpful to low-income consumers, who must spend a higher percentage of their income on energy needs. Evergy’s plan is a step in the right direction for Missouri, both for those who will see lower bills and cleaner air, and for the global community which is affected by the energy decisions we make right here at home.

We are grateful to the Natural Resources Defense Council for their partnership in this matter.

  • The Public Service Commission, or PSC, regulates investor-owned utilities to ensure that customers receive safe, reliable and affordable energy.

Great Rivers Files Comments Opposing Maryland Heights’ Myopic Plan to Develop Floodplain at Taxpayers’ Expense

The City of Maryland Height’s proposal for over $85,000,000 in tax incentives would jeopardize downstream citizens, vulnerable wildlife, and the funding of vital community services reliant on local tax financing.

Great Rivers filed comments before the St. Louis County TIF commission voicing opposition to the proposal. You can read the full comments here.

Change Starts With You

Eva Kappas

by Eva Kappas, Guest Writer

My name is Eva and I’m fifteen years old. Every 4th of July since I was little, my family and I have gone down to southern Missouri, where we have a lot of relatives. There’s a tiny cabin there that my grandmother lived in when she was little that sits right on the bank of a river. Every year, my cousins and brothers and I float down the river, make s’mores and play soccer in the dewy grass. My brothers and cousins like to catch fish and throw them back into the river from a dock that has been flooded, repaired and rebuilt many times.

Because like all rivers, the river floods when it rains, and it washes up over the dock. But each year the rain gets a little bit stronger, and the dock goes from getting damaged to completely uprooted. I don’t want to see the water become more acidic, the algae bloom, or fish die, as will inevitably happen as a result of climate change. But my generation will be dealing with the effects of today’s pollution.

Other weather has gotten more intense, too, like the tornadoes barreling down tornado alley. I was eight when the Joplin tornado leveled my great-grandmother’s house. I remember driving past the piles of splintered wooden beams, crushed living room couches with the stuffing spilling out, and the occasional tricycle peeking out of the rubble.

I am choosing to fight for a livable future for my family, and for the beautiful spaces that still exist on this planet. I am also choosing to fight for good jobs and an equitable future, because my experience still pales in comparison to others’ reality in the face of the climate crisis.

I am not a part of a frontline community. I have never had to wonder where my next meal was coming from, or drink lead-contaminated tap water — which is why I have all the more responsibility to make a change. We aren’t just fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for the planet. And it’s easier to let it go. It’s easier to say, “oh, climate change is someone else’s problem.” But action is crucial. For refugees forced to flee their homes from rising sea levels, for the bees that are the backbone of our ecosystem, for brilliantly colored coral reefs and for everyone who breathes the oxygen of the Amazon and drinks what freshwater we have left. But in order to sustain this ecosystem, and support the people who have already suffered the most from the climate crisis, we need changes that will last.

The change starts with you. The greatest power we are afforded in this country is the power to vote, so use it. Making clean energy options available for households and institutions and sourcing government utilities from clean energy are the first steps to a carbon-neutral state. We need measures to promote the use of clean energy and to phase out the fossil fuels that are blackening our skies and suffocating our ecosystem. This is an emergency, and we have to act like it.


I know you all know we need to take these steps. So now I turn to our policy makers: Politicians: Will you continue to stall while our generation dies, or will you choose to lead with courage, and do what is right to protect our country and our future? If we can make this choice — if our politicians will join us in making this choice — then we have a chance at saving the people and places that we love. We have a chance at stopping climate change.

VICTORY! 1,000 New Electric Vehicle Charging Stations Coming Soon to Missouri

Electric Vehicle Charging
Henry Robertson
Henry Robertson leads Great Rivers Climate and Energy Program

For the past 18 months, Great Rivers’ Climate and Energy Director Henry Robertson has served as legal representative of both the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club before Missouri’s Public Service Commission in support of Ameren Missouri’s electric vehicle (EV) program.

The PSC’s decision, announced last week, will allow Ameren to invest approximately six million dollars in their “Charge Ahead” program, providing incentives to build EV charging infrastructure at workplaces, multi-family dwellings and at public places like businesses for “around town” charging.

The move is intended to encourage the installation of electric vehicle charging stations in targeted locations where infrastructure is necessary to support customer purchase of cleaner, more efficient electric vehicles. The first charging stations are planned to be installed by the end of this year, with all stations to be installed by the end of 2020.

EVs are coming down in price, and it’s cheaper to charge than to fill up a gas tank.

It is a strange but welcome change to find ourselves advocating on behalf of Ameren Missouri, to bring reduced emissions and cleaner air to Missouri’s citizens.

The transportation sector generates the largest share of all national greenhouse gas emissions (approximately 28.9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2017). While we still have a long way to go in making sure that the sector uses electricity generated by renewable sources, this week’s victory advances that goal. It is a positive step toward much-needed improvement of air quality in the region and reducing our production of climate-change causing emissions.

Great Rivers’ President Bruce Morrison Named to Best Lawyers in America 2020

Bruce Morrison

August 16, 2019

Best Lawyers®, the oldest and most highly respected peer review guide to excellence in the legal profession, has named Bruce A. Morrison to its 2020 edition of The Best Lawyers in America in the practice area of Environmental Litigation.

Mr. Morrison has served the people of Missouri through his work at Great Rivers since its founding in 2002. After serving as General Counsel for many years, he assumed leadership of the center in September of 2019. His work has included issues affecting water quality, air pollution, floodplains and wetlands preservation, the protection of parks and open space, and environmental justice.

“Bruce’s passionate and competent protection of Missouri’s environment and the health of our citizens is unwavering. He is an icon among environmental attorneys in our country”.

– Steve Mahfood, Great Rivers’ Board of Directors

Since it was first published in 1983, Best Lawyers has become universally regarded as the definitive guide to legal excellence. Best Lawyers lists are compiled based on an exhaustive peer-review evaluation. Almost 87,000 leading lawyers globally are eligible to vote, and Best Lawyers received almost 10 million evaluations on the legal abilities of other lawyers based on their specific practice areas around the world. Lawyers are not required or allowed to pay a fee to be listed; therefore inclusion in Best Lawyers is considered a singular honor. Corporate Counsel magazine has called Best Lawyers, “the most respected referral list of attorneys in practice.”

Great Rivers Files Objections to Reckless Timber Harvest of Shawnee National Forest

As CO2 levels climb daily to new record levels, the last thing we need to do is to clear cut our forests. The Northern Long Eared Bat, which will likely soon be moved from ‘threatened’ to ‘endangered’ status, would face additional risks from the proposal.

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center has filed objections to a plan by the United States Forest Service to conduct the mechanized, commercial harvesting of close to 500 acres of the Shawnee National Forest, as well as controlled burning and the application of herbicides to another 2,400 acres. Great Rivers contends that the Project proposed by the United States Forest Service will have significant negative impacts on the Northern Long-Eared Bat and other at-risk species, will contribute to global climate change, will lead to erosion, runoff and pollution of the nearby Little Cache River, and will introduce toxic chemicals into the Forest.

Sarah Rubenstein, Great RIvers Environmental Law Center Staff Attorney
Sarah Rubenstein, Great Rivers Environmental Law Center’s Staff Attorney, filed the objections on behalf of a community organization of residents living in and around the forested hills of the Shawnee National Forest.

Great Rivers and the citizen group they represent — the Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment, or “SAFE”– assert that the Forest Service failed to take into account a recent court decision determining that the Northern Long-Eared Bat – a species the Service acknowledges to be present in the Shawnee – should be listed as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act, rather than as a threatened species, as it had been previously listed. Once the bat is listed as endangered rather than threatened, a broader scope of protections will be triggered, including a requirement to preserve habitat used by the bat. The Forest Service improperly failed to consider the impact of the Project on the bat’s habitat in light of this change in its federal status.

The Northern Long-Eared Bat is currently listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act but may soon be considered endangered.

Great Rivers and SAFE also raise urgent concerns that the Project will destroy a valuable carbon sink useful in the fight against climate change. Forests remove carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas pollutant – from the atmosphere.

Removal of close to 500 acres of trees from the forest will contribute to increased levels of greenhouse gas emissions. This effect on our climate must be given its proper weight in the assessment of the Project’s environmental impact.

The groups further object to the Project because of its proposal to introduce herbicides into the protected forest. The Forest Service plans to utilize various chemicals on the forest, some of which persist in the environment, others which have been linked to cancer, groundwater and surface water contamination, others which are toxic to pollinators, and still others that are prone to runoff and are toxic to freshwater fish. Fishing is popular in the Shawnee National Forest.

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center and SAFE argue that the Forest Service failed to consider or appropriately weigh the value of other potential alternatives to the Project, such as no intervention, or the hand-selection and harvesting of trees. Either of these alternatives would result in significantly lower environmental impacts than opening up wide swaths of the forest as the Forest Service proposes to do.


Missouri Wetlands: Our Unsung Resource

Wetlands in Missouri are one of our state’s highly beneficial and yet often unappreciated natural resources.

Before European settlement, Missouri contained over 4.8 million acres of these important ecosystems, but that number was decimated between the 1780’s and 1980’s. Today, Missouri wetlands have been bulldozed, drained, filled in and otherwise reduced down to a mere 643,000 acres – a loss of 87% of their original footprint (Fretwell et. al 1996). Wetlands provide many critical benefits to both the residents of Missouri and the local environment, including improved water quality, floodwater storage, and erosion control. The benefits provided by wetlands not only help wildlife, but improve the lives of people, and are a valuable asset to the economy. 

The Missouri Department of Conservation states that 170 of the 228 animal species that are listed as rare, endangered, or unknown are dependent on wetlands (Burruss 1991). Eight percent of those 170 species have areas within Missouri that are federally listed as critical habitat; meaning that they are essential to the conservation of those species (Fretwell et. al 1996). It’s also recognized that nearly half of Missouri’s 2400 plant species are associated with wetlands (Leahy 2010). These areas have more impact than just providing a habitat for a staggering number of plants and animals. 

A Great Blue Heron. Photo by Tyler Butler.

Wetlands provide a variety of recreational activities that are enjoyed by millions of people each year. Over 21 million people visited Missouri State parks in 2018 to take part in different activities (Schmidt 2019).  From fishing or kayaking to a leisure day of bird watching, the opportunities offered by wetlands create a steady stream of revenue for both Missouri business owners and the state. 

Elephant Rocks State Park. Photo by Deborah Raney.

Residents have taken note of the value that wetlands provide. More than 70% of Missouri residents believed that the value wetlands provide would justify the state purchase of wetlands at 55-64% higher than market value based upon which function(s) were provided (McIntosh et. al 2010). With the various financial and environmental benefits provided, it shows that any action that is detrimental towards wetlands is detrimental towards Missouri residents themselves.

Protecting wetlands is equivalent to protecting the people. As the current administration continues to cut the protections of wetlands we must rally together to prevent any more injustices from occurring. We must work together to conserve and preserve our wetlands and waterways. It would be a tragic loss to both the people and the environment if these rollbacks stemming from corporate greed continue to occur.

Christian Sasse is a recent graduate of Southern Illinois University, where he received his Bachelor of Science in Geology, with special emphasis on organic geochemistry and hydro-geology.


References:

Burruss, Ann. “Threatened and Endangered Species of Wetlands and Waterways in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region VII, Wetlands Protection Section, 1991. 

Fretwell, Judy d, et al. “National Water Summary on Wetland Resources.” Water Supply Paper, 1996, doi:10.3133/wsp2425.

Leahy, Mike. “THE WETLANDS OF MISSOURI.” Missouri Conservationist: Sep 2001, Sept. 2001, mdc.mo.gov/conmag/2001/09/wetlands-missouri.

McIntosh, Steve A, et al. “Benefit Transfer in the Field: Measuring the Benefits of Heterogeneous Wetlands Using Contingent Valuation and Ecological Field Appraisals.”

Papers, vol. 10, no. 01, Feb. 2010, https://econpapers.repec.org/paper/aplwpaper/10-01.htm.

Schmidt, Connie. “Facts and Figures.” Missouri State Parks, 16 Jan. 2019


Great Rivers Environmental Law Center proudly welcomes third year law student Madeline Middlebrooks

Madeline Middlebrooks

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center is delighted to welcome Madeline Middlebrooks to our legal team.

Madeline is from Dardenne Prairie, Missouri. Madeline attended the University of Oregon, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies, and a double minor in Geography and Nonprofit Management.

While at the University of Oregon, Madeline became interested in the connection between the environment, race, place, and law. She believes that your zip code should not determine if you have access to clean air and water.  She decided to attend law school at the University of Denver in order to work on environmental justice issues.

During her time at Denver University, Madeline interned at Environment Colorado, Earthjustice, Siegal Public Affairs, and the Colorado Supreme Court, and created the University’s first-ever multicultural room. Today She is also an active member of Denver Law’s Black Law Student Association.

Madeline will graduate from DU in the Spring of 2020 and will return to Great Rivers to work on environmental justice and water contamination issues.  We are thrilled to have her with us.

In her free time, Madeline likes to go hiking in Missouri State parks, play with her corgi Moe Taters, and make soups from scratch.  

Success! Subsidized Development of 2,409 acres Abutting Wetlands and Creve Coeur Park CANCELLED

The Maryland Heights TIF Commission has voted down a controversial proposal by the City of Maryland Heights to fund a commercial development in a frequently flooded area bordering the Missouri river using $151 million of tax increment financing. The Commission rejected the proposal following vocal opposition by concerned citizens and environmental organizations at several public hearings and written comments from Great Rivers Environmental Law Center raising legal concerns about the development plan.

The City of Maryland Heights proposed a TIF district to install pumps and levees in the Maryland Park Lake District, facilitating the installation of a 2,409-acre mixed-use development. This area bordering Creve Coeur Park currently consists of mostly undeveloped land and farmland, and abuts the wetlands located in and around Creve Coeur Park. The National Audubon Society considers those wetlands an “urban oasis” for the habitat they provide for many migrating waders, waterfowl, and shorebirds, and they are a cherished oasis for the birders who come to see them.

American Bittern ( (Botaurus lentiginosus)
The Audubon Society noted that, “there is evidence of breeding American Bittern at Creve Coeur Lake, and that Least Bittern, Pied-billed Grebe, and Common Moorhen have all been observed there during their respective breeding seasons. King, Virginia, and Black Rails have been observed there as well. [1]

Great Rivers’ attorneys Bob Menees and Sarah Rubenstein seconded concerns voiced by many – that the project would destroy important habitat, and that it would exacerbate flooding conditions downstream of the development, jeopardizing the safety of nearby communities.

Unfortunately, those very valid concerns – consistently raised at several community hearings – seemed to fall on deaf ears as the TIF Commission continued to entertain the idea of placing unnecessary and incompatible developments in the flood-prone area.

When the TIF Commission sought public comments on the project, Great Rivers analyzed the legality of utilizing tax-increment financing (TIF) to subsidize the development, and brought the legal shortcomings of the proposal to the attention of the TIF Commission. On December 17, one day before the Commission was set to vote on the Plan, Great Rivers submitted comments arguing that the Development Plan did not comply with the TIF Act because:

  • it did not demonstrate a predominance of blighting factors in the proposed development;
  • it did not demonstrate that development would not happen in the area “but for” TIF funds; and
  • it did not comply with the City of Maryland Heights’ Comprehensive Plan.

On December 18th, the TIF Commission surprised the crowd assembled at Maryland Heights City Hall by announcing that they were delaying their vote to consider comments received. On January 3, they further surprised onlookers as they voted to reject the Plan.

“The TIF Commission NO vote provides a critical pause in this latest push to develop the area, and we are thankful for Great Rivers’ work in helping to achieve that outcome.”

-Mitch Leachman, Executive Director of the St. Louis Audubon Society

Great Rivers is grateful to the TIF Commission members who voted against the proposal, to the many community members who voiced their concerns, and to Great Rivers Habitat Alliance and the St. Louis Audubon Society for their opposition of this development.


[1] https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas/st-louis-urban-oases-19

Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed announces release of 100% Clean Energy Plan for St. Louis

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center

Great Rivers’ Attorney and Climate and Energy Director Henry Robertson and other Committee Members will share the findings of the City’s 100% Clean Energy Plan.

via Mary Ries
Legislative Director to Board of Aldermen President Lewis E. Reed

Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed announced today that he will share the findings of the City’s 100% Clean Energy Plan on Monday, Nov. 18 at 6 p.m. during the Board of Aldermen Legislation Committee Meeting at City Hall. 

For more than 18 months, a dedicated group of volunteer consultants have worked to develop a 100% Clean Energy Plan through a transparent and inclusive stakeholder process, which provides ways for the City to meet the 100% clean energy goal.

“St. Louis is the largest Midwestern City to commit to such an ambitious goal. St. Louis is taking the lead and acknowledging the threat of climate change. This is a serious issue in our world, which we need to address,” said Reed.

The 100% clean energy goal was established by the unanimous passage of Resolution 124 by the Board of Aldermen. 

“The volunteer consultants have spent hundreds of hours working in the community and seeking input to draft a set of recommendations that focus on reducing emissions for our City; saving the City and residents money; creating jobs; and ensuring equitable access for our residents. On behalf of the City of St. Louis, I would like to thank them all for their extreme generosity to the future of our City,” said Reed. 

BACKGROUND: On October 27, 2017, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen unanimously adopted Resolution 124, sponsored by Board President Lewis Reed, which established a goal for St. Louis to move to 100% clean energy in the electricity sector by 2035. At that time, St. Louis became the 47th City in the nation, and the largest in the Midwest, to adopt such a goal. Resolution 124 also established a process for developing a plan to meet that ambitious 100% clean energy goal. This Report is the result of that process. 

Learn more at www.stlouis-mo.gov/clean-energy 

The meeting is open to the public.

Small Environmental Law Center Receives Recognition as a 2020 “Best Law Firm” for their Services to Protect the Environment and Preserve the Public Health.

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center (“Great Rivers”) is pleased to announce that it has been recognized as a Tier 1 Metropolitan “Best Law Firm” in Environmental Litigation by U.S. News- Best Lawyers, in 2020. Best Lawyers “Best Law Firms” are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. Bruce Morrison, Great Rivers’ newly-elected President and former General Counsel, was also recognized by U.S. News- Best Lawyers as a Best Lawyer in Environmental Litigation, for the 9th consecutive year.

Great Rivers is a nonprofit public interest law firm whose mission is to enhance clean air, water and energy, to preserve wetlands and parks, and to promote the public health. It provides legal services for free or at reduced rates to citizens and organizations in asserting and defending their rights before administrative officials and as a last resort before the courts. It also drafts legislation and initiative petitions and works to enforce existing laws and regulations. It has provided free and reduced fee legal representation to individuals experiencing threats of pollution or destruction to their environment, and to environmental organizations and citizens’ groups in St. Louis, Rolla, Crystal City, Franklin County and the Kansas City area.

Great Rivers is the only nonprofit environmental law firm in Missouri and Southern Illinois.