Federal Court Decision Raises Questions about a Permit Issued for Pond Creek Mine’s Wastewater Pipeline to the Big Muddy River in Southern Illinois


April 20, 2020


Amanda Pankau, Prairie Rivers Network, 217-840-3057, apankau@prairierivers.org

Cindy Skrukrud, Sierra Club, 312-229-4694, cindy.skrukrud@sierraclub.org

Williamson Energy, owner of the Pond Creek Mine in Franklin and Williamson County, Illinois, has applied for or received several permits needed to construct a proposed 12-mile pipeline to pump mine wastewater into the Big Muddy River. The legality of one of those permits, a Nationwide Permit 12, needed for the pipeline to cross streams and wetlands, was called into question with a federal court ruling this Wednesday. 

A U.S. judge ruled Wednesday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) violated the law when it approved a water-crossing permit for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. The ruling invalidates Nationwide Permit 12, prohibiting the Corps from using the fast-tracked approval process for any pipelines nationwide.

Prairie Rivers Network filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Corps last year and learned that a Nationwide Permit 12 was issued for the pipeline on April 10, 2018. 

“We have been reviewing Williamson Energy’s Nationwide Permit 12 for quite some time and have raised concerns to the Corps that the permit fails to adequately account for and mitigate for the impacts to local waters, wildlife, and communities,” said Amanda Pankau, Energy Campaign Coordinator with Prairie Rivers Network. “It’s reassuring to see that the higher courts have recognized the utter failure of Nationwide Permit 12 to provide proper protections that are mandated under the law.”

“The Montana federal district court decision supplies yet another reason why this pipeline crossing numerous streams and discharging polluted water into the Big Muddy cannot legally go forward,” said Albert Ettinger, counsel for Sierra Club and Prairie Rivers Network.

Nationwide permits are issued by the Corps as part of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, a law that protects “waters of the U.S.,” including streams and wetlands. Nationwide Permits give blanket approval to similar projects, often removing public comment, mitigation, and other requirements that would be required with an Individual 404 permit. Nationwide Permit 12, issued by the Corps in 2017, deals specifically with wetland and stream impacts due to “Utility Line Activities,” and allows each wetland and stream crossing to be viewed as a separate and independent impact.

Williamson Energy’s Nationwide Permit 12 authorized the pipeline to cross streams and wetlands 52 times, impacting a total of 1,999 linear feet of stream and 1.945 acres of wetlands. Projects impacting that amount of aquatic habitat are often required to restore wetlands and streams at a nearby offsite location, a process known as mitigation. Because Nationwide Permit 12 views each crossing independently, no wetland or stream mitigation was required for the mine’s 12-mile pipeline.

Other permits for the Big Muddy pipeline generated public scrutiny and outcry, including the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Mine Permit and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s (IEPA) water discharge (NPDES) permit. The Nationwide Permit 12 from the Corps process largely flew under the public’s radar. That’s because Nationwide Permits allow companies and the Corps to skirt the public review and comment process. 

Jan Thomas, a southern Illinois community member, property owner, and steering committee member with Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing our Environment (SAFE) said, “Local public opposition to this pipeline has been substantial. More than 400 people, from kayakers and fishermen to environmentalists, homeowners and business people near the river, attended the December 18 IEPA Hearing in protest to the NPDES Permit. Several dozen spoke in opposition, and more than 200 people signed a petition to Governor Pritzker to deny the permit.”


At Prairie Rivers Network (PRN), we protect water, heal land, and inspire change. Using the creative power of science, law, and collective action, we protect and restore our rivers, return healthy soils and diverse wildlife to our lands, and transform how we care for the earth and for each other. PRN is the Illinois affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation.

The Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club has 100,000 members and supporters across Illinois who seek to restore and protect a clean and healthy environment for all residents of Illinois. The mission of the Sierra Club is to explore, enjoy and protect the planet, to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out those objectives.