Want more top stories? Sign up here for daily or weekly newsletters with our top news.
SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court Tuesday decided that mud washing off logging roads is pollution and ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to write regulations to reduce the amount that reaches salmon streams.
The ruling could have wide-reaching implications for logging operations in the Pacific Northwest.
A conservation group that filed the lawsuit said if the ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stands, logging roads on federal, state and private lands across the West will eventually have to be upgraded to meet federal Clean Water Act standards.
Tuesday’s ruling — which is expected to be appealed — applies to the 9th Circuit states of Oregon, Washington, California, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho and Montana.
“Those roads historically have gotten a free pass,” said Mark Riskedahl of the Northwest Environmental
Defense Center in Portland.
“This is not rocket science. There are some very low-cost, low-maintenance steps folks can take to remedy this problem.”
The center had sued the Oregon Department of Forestry as well as a number of timber companies over sediment washing off two logging roads on the Tillamook State Forest in northwestern Oregon.
The plaintiffs argued that storm runoff from forest roads carries gravel and sediment though a series of ditches and culverts into nearby rivers.
They said it harmed native salmon and trout populations.
Since the runoff was diverted by the roads, they argued it was what is called “a point-source discharge,” which requires a special permit under the Clean Water Act.
A three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based appeals court unanimously agreed, finding that the sediment exceeded Clean Water Act limits — and should be regulated by EPA as a point source of industrial pollution.
The judges rejected arguments from the state that the sediment falls under exemptions granted by Congress and less stringent regulations for things like agricultural runoff.
Chris West, an attorney for the CRAG Law Center in Portland, which represented the center, said the EPA has long recognized sediment as one of the leading sources of water pollution in the country, and that it is harmful to fish, but has chosen not to address the issue of logging roads.
Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman Dan Postrel said they were reviewing the ruling, and had no immediate comment on it.
He added that while timber contracts often call for the buyer to pay for road maintenance, the cost ultimately falls to the agency, because the costs are deducted from payments.
The issue is likely to bring further litigation on national forests, because so little logging goes on there, and roads originally built for logging are now used for other things, including recreation, said Andy Stahl of the conservation group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.
The Oregon Forest Industry Council, which intervened in the case on the side of the department had no immediate comment, — but the prospects for an appeal to the full appeals court or the U.S. Supreme Court are high, said spokesman Ray Wilkeson.