At issue are hundreds of ditches, pipes, culverts, and other sources that emit pollution into the Bear Creek watershed in northern Humboldt County, a watershed that is essential habitat for protected salmon species. The steep slopes that lead to this stream have been extensively logged and sprayed with herbicides in recent years, and eight-square miles of hillsides are now crossed by 39 miles of dirt roads. As rain falls on these clearcuts and other areas with exposed soil, the water becomes laden with sediment and herbicides and is channeled through various ditches and other conduits and carried to a point from which it pours into Bear Creek.
Under the Federal Clean Water Act (CWA), it is illegal to discharge pollution into the waters of the United States from pipes, ditches, channels, conduits, or other conveyance points unless it is covered by a permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Sediment source investigations by PL's own consultants show that hundreds of these "point sources" exist throughout Bear Creek, and that these points have dumped thousands of tons of pollution from areas that were recently logged. As logging rates have increased, so have the rates of erosion and the amount of pollution delivered by these sources.
"The reason Bear Creek is suffering from excessive sediment is because one of the country's most important tools for protecting water quality has not been 'brought to bear,'" said Mike Lozeau, an attorney with Earthjustice who is representing EPIC in the case. "We expect that, once the permitting program is applied, we will see a drastic reduction in pollution being dumped into this watershed," he added.
Bear Creek is an approximately 6,000-acre watershed that drains into the Eel River between Humboldt Redwood State Park and Pacific Lumber's headquarter town in Scotia. The watershed was first logged between 1942 and 1955, and when heavy rains came down in December of 1955, erosion "caused the channel to be filled with 20 feet or more of soil, rocks, and debris" (Pacific Lumber memorandum, July 31, 1959). Extensive restoration projects were carried out in the late 1980's at a cost of more than $100,000 to taxpayers, and by 1992 Bear Creek had regained some components of a healthy stream and a small percent of its salmon population had returned. Since that time, however, more than 60% of the watershed has been logged, and erosion has caused severe degradation to fish habitat and water supplies downstream.
The California Department of Forestry (CDF), along with the Regional Water Quality Control Board and Department of Fish and Game, determined in 1998 that Bear Creek is significantly degraded by PL's recent logging operations. For this reason, CDF assured the public in writing that they would not approve additional logging plans in the watershed until certain protective measures were provided. PL has not met these requirements, but CDF has bowed to political pressure and approved nearly 500 acres in the last two years. The agency now stands poised to approve 700 additional acres in the watershed over the objection of its own forester.
In his inspection report for one logging plan that could be approved any day, CDF's Forester stated: "There appears to be a significant potential for adverse cumulative effects to occur in the Bear Creek watershed should [PL] be allowed to harvest all of the current plans in Bear Creek watershed within a short period of time. The number of acres approved, under review, and in development stages will produce, by sheer volume, a significant risk of adverse effects...The potential for rate related impacts is considered significant at this time." More than 60% of the watershed has been logged since 1987, and current logging plans threaten to push this number to 75%.
In 1997, landslides originating from logging roads and cutover lands wiped out vegetation and stream banks down the entire length of Bear Creek. The Department of Fish and Game reported that "[t]he effects of this [landslide] traveling through Bear Creek include channel aggradation on the order of several feet, near complete elimination of pools, and elimination of all riparian vegetation on the entire two-plus mile main stem of Bear Creek." The watershed is critical habitat for many species that are threatened with extinction, including the coho salmon, chinook salmon and steelhead trout.
"Bear Creek was showing signs of recovery from damage caused by logging fifty years ago, but all recovery efforts were lost in the 1990's when PL began logging even more intensely than before. Massive damage to salmon habitat and drinking water is the result of this ongoing logging spree, and with no end to it in sight, EPIC felt it was necessary to step in to enforce the law," Cynthia Elkins, Program Director of EPIC, stated.
EPIC is represented in this legal action by Michael Lozeau of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund's Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford University. The case was assigned to Honorable Judge Vaughn Walker, and the case number is 012821VRW.