Great Rivers Environmental Law Center

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.

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.

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 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 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 gases in the atmosphere. 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.


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,

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,

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.