Supreme Court prepares for important environmental decision

After several appeals, a lawsuit facing the Oregon Department of Forestry has prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to consider an environmental rule that could have a tremendous impact on logging operations in the state and elsewhere. The nation's highest court is set to determine how the Environmental Protection Agency classifies muddy runoff from logging road, possibly creating massive changes to regulations that have applied to the industry for over three decades.

The civil litigation at the center of the issue began as a lawsuit filed by the Portland-based Northwest Environmental Defense Center against the Oregon Department of Forestry over runoff from a number of roads in Tillamook State Forest. The lawsuit contended that runoff polluted salmon streams in the region, thus requiring the ODF to obtain permits for the roads, similar to those that would be required for a factory.

The plaintiff lost its initial case in U.S. District Court, but later won an appeal in Circuit Court. When the ODF appealed the reversal to the U.S. Supreme Court, over 30 states joined the case. The defendants hope to maintain the current system, which does not require permits for logging roads if they are building according to best management practices. They argue that more regulation would create unnecessary expenses for logging businesses and cause them to cut thousands of jobs.

The plaintiffs and other environmental advocates argue that the heavy machinery needed for logging operations constitute industry and thus should be subject to more stringent EPA regulation, as the Clean Water Act requires permits for such activity.

A timber industry attorney contested those claims. "EPA has been absolutely clear since 1976 in its rules and briefs explaining those rules and what it has done. Never once has it required a permit for discharges from forest service roads," he argued. "It has been absolutely clear that is a bad idea."

Source: Washington Post, "Supreme Court to decide whether logging roads are industrial or agricultural pollution sources," Dec. 1, 2012

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