Northern California Water Board Sued for Exempting Logging Industry from Pollution Requirements
Conservation organizations today filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court that seeks to overturn the Regional Water Quality Control Board's decision to grant the logging industry a broad exemption of the State's Clean Water Act, affecting millions of acres of public and private land in the region. The petition was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), and the Humboldt Watershed Council.
The lawsuit comes just days after an independent scientific study determined that excessive logging in five Northern California watersheds caused downstream problems, including severe flooding. The report was issued by a panel of scientists chosen by community members, the North Coast Regional Board, and Pacific Lumber Company, and unanimously concludes that the company's rate of logging must be dramatically reduced due to water quality concerns.
Containing only 12% of the State's land base, the North Coast region produces approximately 45% of the timber produced on nonfederal land in California. A substantial amount of additional logging occurs on public land in the region, making logging operations the most prevalent land use activity on the North Coast.
Ken Miller of the Humboldt Watershed Council, a party in the petition filed today, said, "Ancient redwoods are falling in Humboldt State Park due to flooding of their root systems. Local families have also been flooded out of their homes."
The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board originally adopted a waiver for logging operations in 1987. Since this waiver was installed, more than 85% of the watersheds in the region have been formally listed as "impaired" under the Clean Water Act due to excessive sediment pollution. Residents now suffer frequent flooding events, swimming holes have been filled in with sediment, domestic and agricultural uses of water have been destroyed, native aquatic species have disappeared from their natural range, recreational and commercial fishing opportunities are all but eliminated, and ancient trees in protected areas are dying.
The 1987 categorical waiver relied on the implementation of the California Forest Practice Rules by the California Department of Forestry for logging operations to protect water quality on nonfederal land. These rules have been resoundingly criticized by, among others, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for their failure to protect water quality both before and since the 1987 waiver was adopted.
The Regional Board never reviewed its waiver during the fourteen years it was in place, and failed to terminate it despite numerous requests by affected parties. In 1999, the State of California enacted a new law that automatically would terminate all waivers on January 1, 2003 unless the regional boards reviewed and renewed the waivers, at properly noticed public hearings, prior to that date. After waiting more than three years to take action to review its waiver pursuant to Senate Bill 390, the Regional Board rushed to install a new one before the January 1, 2003 expiration date arrived. The Board adopted a new categorical waiver on December 10, 2002.
"This was a sweetheart deal for the logging corporations, made in haste, to beat a state deadline," said Cynthia Elkins of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC). "There is no rational way the Regional Board can claim that waiving important water quality protection requirements and fees for every logging plan proposed during the next year anywhere in the North Coast region will not have a serious impact on water quality and other important environmental values. The Board's decision focused on protecting logging companies rather than its mandate to protect water quality."
Numerous small business throughout the North Coast region have to comply with storm water pollution requirements, including paying fees to the Regional Board," added Miller of the Humboldt Watershed Council. "It is not fair to those businesses that logging corporations like Pacific Lumber and Simpson should get off scott free when they produce the vast majority of the pollution that is destroying our north coast rivers and creeks."
"All of the evidence before the Board, much of which has been collected by its own staff, demonstrates that water quality is seriously harmed when the Regional Board waives important requirements of the state's water pollution control laws," said Mike Lozeau of Earthjustice. "In order to proceed down that ill-advised path, the Regional Board must first prepare a full Environmental Impact Report in order to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)." CEQA requires agencies to analyze and fully disclose the potential environmental impacts of their actions in order to assure that they consider reasonable alternatives and avoid impacts wherever possible.
Mike Lozeau, Earthjustice, (650) 725-4217, (415) 596-5318 cell
Cynthia Elkins, EPIC, (707) 923-2931
Dr. Ken Miller, Humboldt Watershed Council, (707) 496-7444