Late Tuesday, a federal court ruled that logging companies are no different than anyone else and must abide by the federal Clean Water Act. The judge found that logging companies are required to get permits for pollution emitted from "ditches, culverts, channels, and gullies". The ruling is the first in the nation to apply the Clean Water Act to this type of logging pollution.
The opinion by Judge Marilyn Hall Patel gives the go-ahead for the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), represented by Earthjustice, to proceed with its case against the Pacific Lumber Company. This suit targets years of devastating pollution in Bear Creek, a tributary of the Eel River in Humboldt County California.
Pollution caused by logging operations is extremely common. The federal EPA and state of California have found that 85% of the northern California rivers and streams, including Bear Creek and the Eel River, are severely polluted by logging. The devastating effects of logging pollution on aquatic habitat are the primary cause of reduced coho salmon and steelhead populations, which now require federal protection.
The lawsuit charges that Pacific Lumber Company is discharging massive amounts of pollution through ditches, channels, and other "point sources" without necessary pollution control permits. Under the CWA, it is illegal to discharge pollution into the waters of the United States from "discrete conveyance points" without permits.
"It's time the logging industry faced up to the fact that they are serious polluters of our nation's waters, causing massive erosion that is smothering critical fish habitat and spoiling people's water supplies – and that pollution is illegal," said Earthjustice attorney Mike Lozeau. "The Clean Water Act's pollution control requirements are one of the most successful and cost-efficient pollution control programs ever devised. Yesterday's ruling finally makes timber companies clean up their act in the woods."
Bear Creek is a tributary of the Eel River basin located between Humboldt Redwoods State Park and the Maxxam/Pacific Lumber's headquarter town of Scotia. It is essential habitat for protected salmon species, but the California Department of Fish and Game discovered this habitat had been "essentially erased" in the late 1990's after extensive logging was completed. Approximately 75% of the watershed has been logged and sprayed with herbicides in the last fifteen years, and 39 miles of dirt roads now cross its eight-square miles of hillsides. The lawsuit contends that investigations by Pacific Lumber's own consultants show that hundreds of Pacific Lumber drainpipes, culverts and ditches are dumping thousands of tons of pollution from areas that were recently clearcut or otherwise logged.
"Nobody wants our majestic salmon and steelhead trout to disappear from California's waters. No one wants to see people forced to have drinking water trucked in to their communities because a logging company has silted up their river," said EPIC's Cynthia Elkins. "The Clean Water Act simply instructs the logging industry that when they build roads and log hillsides, they have to make sure that they do not dump sediments, herbicides and other pollutants into our rivers and streams."
EPIC was formed in 1977 and is dedicated to preserving, protecting, and restoring biodiversity, native species, watersheds, and ecosystems in northern California. EPIC is headquartered in Garberville, California. Earthjustice is a nonprofit public-interest environmental law firm based in Oakland, California. The Earthjustice Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford represents EPIC in this lawsuit.
The case number is No. C 01-2821 MHP.
Additional information and photographs of Bear Creek are available on EPIC's website at: www.wildcalifornia.org/projects/cleanwateract