The U.S. Supreme Court will hear an appeal in a case that examines whether sediment running off logging roads is industrial pollution and should be more tightly regulated.
The case could affect thousands of miles of roads. It’s being closely watched by the timber industry, clean water advocates, and politicians in the Northwest.
The case began when a group of law students with the Northwest Environmental Defense Center in Portland tested storm water running off the road system in the Tillamook State Forest. The students found high levels of turbidity and sediment, and the NEDC sued the state and several timber companies.
Chris Winter, with the Crag Law Center, is one of the attorneys involved in litigating the case.
Rain had begun to fall in the Tillamook on a late- spring day when Winter pointed to muddy water collecting in ditches alongside a logging road. He said logging trucks grind gravel into fine sediment, and that runs into streams during storms.
“It sounds really simple, but it’s one of the most pervasive pollution sources,” Winter said.
Winter pointed out a culvert that diverts the runoff from this road into the nearby Trask River. He said the sediment in the runoff harms salmon.
“It clogs their gills, it covers up their eggs. And so sediment is a really major cause of the decline of salmon across the West.”
In 2010, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that logging operations are required to obtain Clean Water Act permits for culverts and ditches that channel runoff into streams.
Environmental groups say the permits are already required for construction sites, mines, and state highway systems that create and capture runoff.
But the Environmental Protection Agency has long maintained an exemption for the timber industry.
The state of Oregon and the timber industry appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, and 26 states signed a brief in support of the appeal.
In a press release, the American Forest Industries Council praised the Supreme Court for accepting the case for review.
The council says the Clean Water Act permits are an impractical way to protect water quality along the thousands of miles of logging roads in the Northwest, particularly in areas where public and private forestland is intermingled and roads have multiple uses.
Back in the Tillamook, a logging truck lumbered down the road. The driver didn’t want to give his name, but he’s heard about the court case.
“All they’re trying to do is make a mountain out of a molehill.”
The driver said he is already required to take precautions to protect water quality, like putting up straw bales to divert mud away from creeks. He says in the 20 years he’s driven his truck timber companies have improved their road management dramatically.
“They’re making an honest effort to fix the problem… If it’s rained real hard and there’s a muddy issue, they’ll shut the landings down. They’ll keep the trucks off the road.”
Environmental groups counter that this system of “Best Management Practices” is not as effective, or fair, as permits.
The Supreme Court hasn’t scheduled oral arguments in the case, but will likely hear it during the next term, between October and April of 2012.
In the meantime, congress crafted a one-year storm water permit exemption for logging operations, and the EPA recently announced it plans to revise its storm water regulations for the industry.