Court sides with timber industry in runoff dispute

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Updated: March 20, 2013, 5:36 PM

 

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U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, praised the U.S. Supreme Court decision Thursday that ruled water runoff from gravel and dirt forest roads is different than water runoff from industrial parking lots under the federal Clean Water Act.

“The Supreme Court decision today is very good news for workers, small businesses, and communities throughout Southwest Washington - but we’re not in the clear just yet,” Herrera Beutler said Wednesday in a statement. “Until we’ve put clear protections into law, forest roads are still susceptible to job-killing federal regulations that simply aren’t necessary to protect our forest and waterways.”

Herrera Beutler said the federal Environmental Protection Agency could try to enforce stricter water runoff rules on forest roads in the future, because they recently ruled that runoff from forest roads are an identifiable source of water pollution.

— Stevie Mathieu

WASHINGTON — A conservation group said Wednesday it will keep pushing federal authorities to more closely regulate muddy logging roads, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday that sided with the timber industry on the issue.

Activists believe the ruling left room to press the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate runoff from the roads through specific permits, rather than broad recommendations, said Paul Kampmeier, a lawyer representing the Northwest Environmental Defense Center.

The center sued the Oregon Department of Forestry over roads in Tillamook State Forest that drain into salmon streams.

The suit contends the Clean Water Act specifically says water running through ditches and culverts built to handle storm water from logging roads is a source of pollution when it flows directly into a river.

Such roads require the same sort of permit from the federal agency as a factory, the suit states.

However, in a 7-1 vote, the high court reversed a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that held logging road runoff into salmon streams is the same as any other industrial pollution.

“The Supreme Court ruling today, while not the ruling we wanted, certainly suggests EPA has the power to solve the problem,” Kampmeier said. “We expect to continue working with EPA to get a solution that will be effective on the ground.”

The EPA disagreed with the appeals court ruling, and Justice Anthony Kennedy said for the court that the agency’s reading of its own regulations is entitled to deference from the court.

The agency has since issued a new regulation that makes it clear that water from logging roads is the same as runoff from a farmer’s field and is not industrial pollution.

The environmental center filed another lawsuit in January challenging the new rule. But Kampmeier said it is unclear if that challenge will go forward in light of the Supreme Court ruling.

Activists could cite different sections of the Clean Water Act requiring permits for operations that pollute U.S. waters or violate clean water standards.

The court “effectively said EPA gets to decide whether to regulate by requiring permits for polluting roads,” Kampmeier said. “Because EPA has said they didn’t intend to regulate them, the court found EPA did not require permits.”

EPA referred comment to the U.S. Department of Justice, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Dave Tenny, president of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, praised the current EPA policy that regulates logging roads the same as farm fields. He expects the legal challenge to continue, even though he said it has only caused disruption.

“We just won an important round in an ongoing fight,” Tenny said. “What we have been looking for all along is to maintain what EPA has done successfully for 37 years.”

Per Ramfjord, an attorney representing the timber industry, said he doubted the appeals court would be receptive to new challenges to the EPA, given the strong majority in the Supreme Court ruling.