GRANTS PASS, Ore. – A federal appeals court Tuesday decided that mud washing off logging roads is pollution and ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to write regulations to reduce the amount that reaches salmon streams.
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 Clean Water Act standards.
“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 over sediment washing off two logging roads on the Tillamook State Forest in northwestern Oregon.
A three-judge panel of the court found 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 Winter, 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 Department of Environmental Quality said general industrial storm water permits run less than $800.
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 were high, said spokesman Ray Wilkeson.
The ruling applies to the 9th Circuit states of Oregon, Washington, California, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho and Montana.