Great Rivers Environmental Law Center

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

Madeline Middlebrooks
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.

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center sees Victory in Water Pollution Case

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center has reached an agreement to settle a lawsuit alleging ongoing, repeated and unlawful discharges of E. coli, Ammonia and other harmful water pollutants into the Big River by an out-of-state, regional property management company.

Great Rivers alleges that the Illinois-based company has far exceeded the allowable discharge limits from its wastewater lagoon, and the pollution from the lagoon has negatively impacted water quality of the Big River.

“Since 2015, the defendant had flagrantly disregarded several notices from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources that they were in significant non-compliance with their water pollution permit,” said Bob Menees, who served as Great Rivers’ lead attorney on the case.

“Unfortunately, they continued using Missouri’s shared waters as their private dumping ground.”

Great Rivers filed the action as a “citizen suit” under the Clean Water Act on behalf of Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper, whose members were concerned that the pollution discharges posed dangers to them when using the river for swimming, canoeing, kayaking, or other recreational activities and that the pollution would cause harm to wildlife, including several species of endangered freshwater mussel that are particularly sensitive to ammonia.

The defendant responded to the suit by entering into agreement with the Jefferson County Public Sewer District to take over control of the lagoon and connect it to their central sewer system, thus eliminating the source of pollution from the facility to the Big River.

“This is a good outcome for Missourians who care about protecting our water quality, and for everyone who frequently recreates on the Big River.” said Rachel Bartels, head of Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper. “We hope that other would-be polluters will take note that a ‘watchdog’ is out there – and ensure the safe, sustainable treatment of their pollution.”

The settlement additionally requires the company to pay for a supplemental environmental project to mitigate the facility’s pollution, which will be directed to support restoration and cleanup work in the Big River watershed.

You can read coverage of the case in the St. Louis Post Dispatch 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.

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.

References:

“Bottled Water Waste Facts.” The World Counts, www.theworldcounts.com/stories/Bottled_Water_Waste_Facts.

Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Food Loss and Waste.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, www.fda.gov/food/consumers/food-loss-and-waste.

“LED Lighting.” Energy.gov, www.energy.gov/energysaver/save-electricity-and-fuel/lighting-choices-save-you-money/led-lighting.

Lerner, Rebecca. “The Sustainable and Storied Past of Vintage Clothing.” Planet Blue, 8 Dec. 2016, sustainability.umich.edu/news/sustainable-and-storied-past-vintage-clothing.

Meatless Monday: Protect the Planet, One Day Each Week. Compassion Over Killing, cok.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/MM-Environment-Fact-Sheet.pdf.

“Reducing Your Transportation Footprint.” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, 27 Oct. 2017, www.c2es.org/content/reducing-your-transportation-footprint/.

Rogers, James. “How Our Global Battle against Coronavirus Could Help Us Fight Climate Change.” World Economic Forum, Apr. 2020, www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/how-our-global-battle-against-coronavirus-could-help-us-fight-climate-change/.

“Transit's Role in Environmental Sustainability.” Transit's Role in Environmental Sustainability | FTA, www.transit.dot.gov/regulations-and-guidance/environmental-programs/transit-environmental-sustainability/transit-role.

Wallace-Wells, David. “The Coronavirus Is a Preview of Our Climate-Change Future.” Intelligencer, Intelligencer, 8 Apr. 2020, nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/04/the-coronavirus-is-a-preview-of-our-climate-change-future.html.

Citizens and Great Rivers Environmental Law Center Continue Partnership to fight Commercial Development

The ability of citizens in residential areas to keep their neighborhoods clean and free of industrial pollution and waste should be a right, not a privilege.

Many of our nation’s environmental justice issues revolve around the way in which a neighborhood’s economic status frequently correlates with both its air and water quality.

Poorer neighborhoods are often unable to fight commercial projects that pose a threat to their public health, especially compared to neighborhoods that retain significant economic resources.

It is not uncommon for residents who face destructive industrial projects in their communities to place their own bodies directly in harm’s way to protect their friends and family, sometimes going so far as to lie in the middle of the road to prevent project materials from being delivered. For many, such measures appear to be the only option they have. This tactic first appeared in 1982, when residents of a low-income neighborhood in Warren County, North Carolina, used it as a means to prevent dump trucks from dumping hazardous waste in a new landfill site created near their homes.

It seems, however, that even when citizens are able to obtain legal representation to oppose the construction of an industrial project, they can still be denied their right to protect and preserve the environmental integrity of their community. This issue is evident in an ongoing case involving residents in Franklin County, MO, whose six years of resistance to the construction of a concrete plant in their neighborhood has been repeatedly circumvented by their county’s Planning and Zoning commission. Landvatter Enterprises LLC, the company responsible for suggesting and pushing the project, has repeatedly denied the environmental harms that the concrete plant will bring to the neighborhood, simply stating in an interview with Fox2now in 2014 that “[w]e’re regulated so there is no dust.”[1] Such a sweeping assurance was met with justifiable skepticism from residents, who believe that the plant will adversely impact the neighborhood’s environment by producing increases in residential traffic, noise, and dust – all of which would harm both the residents and the wildlife in the area.

Local residents are not the only ones concerned about the plant’s potential to degrade the local environment. Standing just 2,400 feet from the plant is the Shaw Nature Reserve. The Reserve is one of the final oases for wildlife remaining in a heavily urbanized part of the state, especially migrating birds looking for a safe place to rest in their journey. It is also the closest nature reserve to the city of St. Louis, serving an important recreation role as a green-space for the community.

In 2014, the Reserve’s director John Behrer voiced his concerns on behalf of the Missouri Botanical Garden, noting that “[f]acilities of the type that [Landvatter LLC] proposes inherently produce noise and dust,” and are even capable of producing smoke stacks that can grow up to 70 feet in length.[2] For this reason, the Reserve considers the proposed location of the plant highly inappropriate and is opposed to its construction.[3]

The notion of central planning has existed from the outset of human civilization. Yet, central planning with an eye toward preservation and public health did not become an important concept until factories (and illness) began to emerge in the 19th and 20th centuries. As factories encroached upon residential areas, pollution became the norm. Efforts to beautify and “clean up” industrial centers and neighborhoods surrounding them resulted in city planning initiatives which established urban greenspaces and more strict zoning standards in the late 19th century. These early initiatives laid the foundations of modern urban land usage and planning and inspired the construction of city parks which remain influential (and beautiful) to this day.

As part of its Land Use Program, Great Rivers joined the residents of Franklin County in 2014 in their ongoing fight to protect their community from the harmful effects that a concrete plant would create. The Land Use Program at Great Rivers strives to assist citizen groups and organizations in defending nature reserves, parks, and other outdoor community spaces from being encroached upon or significantly disturbed by industrial projects. 

Though this case has dragged on for nearly six years, the staff at Great Rivers is committed to assisting the residents of Franklin county in their ongoing battle to preserve the environmental integrity of their neighborhood and protect the Shaw Nature Reserve.

It is vital that citizens have a say in what gets put into their community – whether commercial or industrial.

You can learn more about this six-year-long case on our blog

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.

[1] Roche Madden, “Shaw Nature Reserve and residents fighting proposed concrete plant,” Fox2now, 6 March 2014, https://fox2now.com/news/shaw-nature-reserve-and-residents-fighting-proposed-concrete-plant/.

[2] John Behrer, Letter to the Franklin County Planning and Zoning Department from Missouri Botanical Garden, 27 Feb. 2014.

[3] Behrer, Letter to the Franklin County Planning and Zoning Department.

Meet our 2020 Interns!

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center has been thrilled to host these bright young people on our intern team this year. Whether helping with legal research, outreach initiatives, content creation or a great variety of other tasks, they bring energy and talent to the enormous battle to protect our environment. We are grateful to them for choosing to serve our local community and the environment through their internship experience.

Georgia Barfield
Washington University School of Law

Georgia Barfield is a summer legal intern at Great Rivers. She graduated with a BA in Philosophy from the University of North Florida in 2018 and is heading into her second year at law school this year. Growing up in Charleston, SC, she developed a deep appreciation for the ecosystems of the South Carolina Lowcountry. This has inspired her to pursue a career in environmental law, with a focus on wetlands protection. In her free time, she enjoys distance running, reading, and camping. 


Abby Chen
Washington University in St. Louis

Abby is a master’s degree student focusing on Business Analytics. While she is originally from Beijing, this will be her third year residing in the United States. In terms of personal interests, she enjoys the feeling of being at one with nature while hiking, and also considers herself to be a bit of a cinema buff!


Rachel Dabbs
Washington University in St. Louis

Rachel Dabbs is serving as a marketing and outreach intern this summer and is excited to share her passion for the environment with others in the St. Louis community! She is currently a rising junior double majoring in Marketing and International Affairs. Growing up in Maryland, she has always been a proud supporter of environmental sustainability and getting involved with her community! In her free time, she enjoys dance, rock climbing, hiking, and skiing.  


Elizabeth Goblirsch, Environmental Law

Elizabeth Goblirsch
Washington University in St. Louis

Elizabeth is a senior double majoring in History and Psychology, and will be completing a senior thesis in history this coming fall. Elizabeth plans to apply to law school and hopes to someday practice in the field of Environmental Law. In her free time, she enjoys running, writing, and taking care of her cacti.


Stephanie Grathwohl
Saint Louis University School of Law

Stephanie Grathwohl grew up in a small farming community in Southern Illinois. She has been working in ecological restoration in the St. Louis area for the past 4 years. Some of the work she is involved in includes native seed production and prairie and woodland restoration.  She graduated from DePaul University in 2011 with a BA degree in political science and community service studies. Stephanie hopes to use her law degree to continue to restore natural areas and educate the community on the need for environmental preservation.  In her free time, she enjoys playing music, foraging, making herbal medicines and mountain biking.


Joanna Grill
Washington University in St. Louis

Joanna Grill is a summer legal intern at Great Rivers from the Boston area and is a rising senior. At WashU, she studies sociology with minors in legal studies and business of social impact. After college, Joanna hopes to attend law school and pursue a career in public interest law. Her concerns about climate change and environmental racism grew in high school, and she’s been passionate about learning about and combating both ever since. She is also a lifelong lover of the outdoors, and in her free time, you can find her outside hiking, tossing a Frisbee, biking, or playing guitar. 


Lavran Johnson
Harvard Law School

Lavran Johnson has spent much of his life outdoors. He grew up in Seattle, studied diverse topics as a member of the University of Redland’s Johnston Center, and worked for several years as an outdoor educator and climbing instructor. Now, as a law student and legal intern, he is anxious to protect vulnerable places and people from all kinds of environmental harms.


Jessica King
Washington University in St. Louis

Jessica King is a rising senior 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.


Hale Masaki
Vanderbilt University

Hale is a rising sophomore majoring in Earth and Environmental Sciences and Environmental Sociology. A St. Louis native, Hale has been passionate about the environment from a young age, and is excited to help Great Rivers advocate for the needs of others. In his spare time, he enjoys spending time with friends and family, and hosts a radio show on VandyRadio.


Joel Nelson
Washington University in St. Louis

Joel has spent nearly his entire life dedicated to serving the community. Over years of study and real-world experience, he has gained many skills needed to properly serve as a Community Building and Outreach Intern for this summer! And as a native Floridian, he’s always been very immersed in the environment, and quite enjoys hiking and fishing when he’s not busy with the responsibilities of day to day life!


Lara Rix
Washington University in St. Louis

Lara Rix is an undergraduate legal intern at Great Rivers. Originally from Portland, Oregon, she is heading into her senior year. As a political science and women’s studies double major, she is primarily interested in the intersection between environment and social issues, and is hoping to pursue law school post graduation. In her free time, Lara enjoys rock climbing, hiking, running for Washington University’s track and cross country teams, and trying new coffee shops around St. Louis. 

Settlement Reached: A Big Victory for the Big River

Cedar Mill at Big River, Public Domain Image

When properly cared for, Missouri’s Big River and its tributaries are home to a rich aquatic life, including a diverse range of fish and invertebrates.

Good clean mud. No sewage here please!

The 145-mile long Big River also provides respite for Missourians looking to fish and swim in Washington, Saint Francois, and Jefferson counties. On any given day, you may see local residents fishing, sunbathing, or enjoying water sports in the river.

So when we learned that Byrnes Mill Farms – an 80-acre mobile home park – repeatedly discharged ammonia, E.coli, and other dangerous toxins into the river, we knew we wanted to step in to protect one of the state’s treasured water sources.

“Byrnes Mill Farms’ actions presented a dramatic and direct threat to the river’s livelihood. Its offloading of harmful pollutants would drastically degrade the river’s quality, harming its diverse ecosystem and affecting the public’s ability to safely fish, swim, and enjoy the river.”

Representing our client Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper – a grassroots organization that aims to protect and monitor water quality in Missouri –  we brought a lawsuit against Byrnes Mill Farms in January 2020. The lawsuit highlighted the defendant’s violations of the Clean Water Act and its failures to operate its pollution control equipment, monitor and report its pollutant discharges, and obey their discharge permit.

The complaint noted the varied activities that Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper members enjoy at the Big River, including canoeing, boating, kayaking, wildlife observation, and more.

“The public has recreational, spiritual, professional and aesthetic ties to Missouri’s waters, including the Big River,” said Bob Menees, Great Rivers’ lead attorney on the case. “Protecting and restoring Missouri’s waters benefits everyone.”

Members of a local stream team clean up the Big River. As a result of the settlement, the organizer of this event – the Open Space Council – will receive funding for further restoration projects of the Big River.

Now, just a few months later, we have secured an outcome which will remedy this dirty problem and protect the people and wildlife who use the river. The defendant has agreed to allow the local sewer district to assume control of the lagoon, connecting it to a central swerve system to eliminate the facility’s pollution. Our efforts have also resulted in $5,000 allocated to the conservation nonprofit Open Space Council, which will do restoration and clean up work in the Big River.

In the settlement, we were also able to ensure that these legal services were provided to Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper at no cost to them.

For seventeen years, we have offered free and reduced-fee legal services to individuals and organizations fighting for environmental and public health. Our Water Quality Program is just one of Great Rivers’ six areas of focus. As Missouri’s first and only public interest law firm focused on the environment and public health, we also run programs in Climate and Energy, Environmental Justice, Air Quality and Public Health, Land Use, and Wetlands and Floodplains.

Each of our programs helps individuals and organizations devoted to protecting the environment navigate the courts and administrative agencies, enforce environmental laws, and fight for environmental justice.

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.

A Statement from Great Rivers Environmental Law Center President Bruce Morrison

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center mourns George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tory Sanders – and so many others – and condemns their unjust murders.

Systemic racism, police brutality and environmental racism are interconnected issues that work concurrently to promote the unfair treatment of black communities across the nation. We cannot address these as separate issues, as we cannot fight environmental racism without also confronting racial injustice.

Historically, the environmental law movement has ignored black and brown communities who suffer from environmental racism.  We are all too aware that effects of climate change and environmental pollution disproportionately harm black communities, and we are dedicated to being advocates for these communities in our work.  

A core tenet of Great Rivers’ mission is combating environmental racism, and we are more motivated than ever to fight against these injustices.

However, we acknowledge that we have not done enough and we must do better. In our everyday work, we will take more steps to foster an anti-racist workplace, and we will prioritize educating supporters of our organization on racial injustice. We will use our platform to build and strengthen connections with local leaders and organizations. Our commitment to the communities we serve has never been stronger, and we are ready to create real, actionable, and lasting change.

Conservation Groups Challenge Army Corps’ Mississippi River Plan

Photo credit of Mississippi flooding to AlansHeaven/Flickr

Corps’ Plan Increases Flood Risks and Damages Habitat; Analysis of Impacts Insufficient

ST. LOUIS (May 13, 2020) – Five conservation groups have sued the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, arguing the agency did not properly evaluate the impacts of its plan for managing a 195-mile section of the Mississippi River between St. Louis, MO and Cairo, Ill. The lawsuit was brought by the National Wildlife Federation, American Rivers, Prairie Rivers Network, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, and Great Rivers Habitat Alliance.

“The Army Corps has opted to continue to recklessly follow a century-old plan that increases the risk of catastrophic floods while destroying vital wildlife habitat,” said Melissa Samet, Senior Water Resources Counsel at the National Wildlife Federation. “It is unfortunate that we had to go to court to urge the agency to assess all the risks and evaluate modern approaches. However, last year’s flooding shows how critical it is that the Army Corps get this right.”

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, challenges the Corps’ Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Regulating Works Project. The Regulating Works Project guides the Army Corps’ management of this section of the Mississippi River.  

The plaintiffs argue the agency failed to properly evaluate the risk of increased flooding from the additional river training structures and it did not adequately consider the impacts of altering the river on fish, birds and other wildlife. The Army Corps’ analysis also ignored mitigation requirements passed by Congress in the 2007 water resources bill.

The Army Corps has already constructed hundreds of miles of “river training structures” that alter the river’s flow.  These structures – which include wing dikes, bendway weirs, and chevrons – have increased flood height by up to 15 feet in some locations and 6 to 8 feet in broad stretches of the Middle Mississippi. The impacts of these and other Army Corps actions on the river have so constricted the river that it now suffers from the type of flash flooding more typical of a much smaller river. 

“Great Rivers Habitat Alliance is a part of this important lawsuit because we feel it is imperative that all government agencies properly consider the cumulative impacts of their individual project proposals, which far too many government entities at every level fail to do,” David Stokes, the executive director of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance. “We also support limits on structural projects to attempt to manage our great rivers.”  

“The Army Corps should be protecting communities along the river, not putting them at even greater risk by building more structures that are known to increase flood heights,” said Kim Knowles, attorney and policy specialist for Prairie Rivers Network. 

“American Rivers named the Upper Mississippi as America’s Most Endangered River for 2020 because of the urgent threat of flooding and climate change. The Army Corps’ outdated approaches threaten community safety and river health. It’s critical that the Corps reevaluate the impacts of its plan and consider more effective solutions. It is time to change course,” said Olivia Dorothy, Upper Mississippi Basin Director for American Rivers.

“The Mississippi River is our region’s greatest natural asset. Decades of short-term thinking have deprived communities up and down the river of its natural, free-flowing benefits and risked lives, property, and environmental health by contributing to the severity of its floods,” said Heather Navarro, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “The people deserve a comprehensive review of the environmental impacts of the Corps’ decisions because we are all dependent on it. Decisions have been historically based on what’s good for certain businesses but the law calls us to do better.”

The Department of the Interior has documented 193 species of migratory birds in or around the project area. Some 144 species of fish live in this section of the river, including the endangered pallid sturgeon which is directly affected by the project. 

This lawsuit seeks to require the Corps to redo its environmental review, stop or limit construction of new river training structures, and effectively mitigate the impacts of its Regulating Works Project. The groups are represented by the Law Offices of Stephan C. Volker and Great Rivers Environmental Law Center.

via the National Wildlife Federation

Missouri’s Endangered Species

By Grace Brinkmann

Endangered Species Day is May 15th and gives us a great opportunity to learn about endangered species and how we can protect them. The United States is home to thousands of different plants and animals with whom we share this earth. Each organism plays a role and has a purpose, but unfortunately, many of these species’ populations are becoming more threatened and endangered each day. 

The Ozark hellbender is a strictly aquatic amphibian found in Ozark streams of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. This subspecies of hellbender is listed as endangered because a rapid decline in numbers and range have left only small, isolated populations.
Photo by Jeff Briggler; Missouri Department of Conservation

Humans are just a thread in the web of life but we have caused massive destruction to our environment. Environmental activist Bill McKibben says succinctly, “We didn’t create this world, but we are busy de-creating it”. Although we can be proud of our extraordinary advancements in technology, medicine, and other areas, we cannot deny that we have made damage. 

Fortunately, it is possible, and it is up to us to reverse it. By becoming aware of endangered species, we can learn how to save and protect them. 

The Endangered Species Act passed in 1973 provides the backbone for the legal defense of our nation’s incredible biodiversity, by requiring that any actions authorized, funded, or carried out by federal agencies cannot jeopardize the continued existent of any listed species or the habitats of listed species.

The Endangered Species Act has already helped recovered many species, and Great Rivers has used it in our work protect several of Missouri’s species including the Pallid Sturgeon, the Ozark Hellbender, and the Gray Bat.

Life on earth is all interconnected and all organisms in an ecosystem depend upon each other. We are part of these ecosystems and we depend on plants and animals for food, water, clothing, shelter, fuel, and clean air. 

Some ways, big or small, to save our endangered species include…

  1. Educate ourselves, our friends, and our family. 
  2. Reduce, reuse, recycle. 
  3. Volunteer for wildlife organizations. 
  4. Limit your use of plastic products, which harm wildlife when disposed of. 
  5. Do your part to limit pollution… Ride your bike, carpool, use public transportation, and do not litter.
  6. Speak up and take action. Learn how your community helps wildlife and write to your local politicians. 
  7. Do not support companies that pollute natural water resources.
  8. Fundraise to support conservation organizations. 
  9. Post on social media about endangered species and ways to help. 
  10. Reduce your water consumption.

You can also directly support the legal protection of Missouri’s endangered species through making a gift to 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.