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Protecting the environment by providing legal services for forest cases of statewide significance

Protecting the environment by providing legal services for forest cases of statewide significance.

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The Oregonian: "Suit to attack logging roads' dirty water"

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June 22, 2006 -- An environmental group alleges polluted runoff is streaming into the Trask, Kilchis rivers. A Portland legal group known for making polluters clean up their acts is taking aim at logging roads in the Coast Range that it says funnel chocolate-brown water into prime salmon rivers with every heavy rain.

By Michael Milstein 

A Portland legal group known for making polluters clean up their acts is taking aim at logging roads in the Coast Range that it says funnel chocolate-brown water into prime salmon rivers with every heavy rain.

The Northwest Environmental Defense Center this week notified State Forester Marvin Brown, the state Board of Forestry and four timber companies that it's prepared to sue them for violating the federal Clean Water Act by letting polluted runoff drain from the roads without permits.

The violations carry possible penalties of up to $32,500 per day, the group said in its notice.

The Oregon Department of Forestry has documented the problems in its own reports over the past decade. The department would not comment on the planned lawsuit but said it has made great progress in routing road runoff away from streams.

Steve Zika, president of Hampton Tree Farms, one of the companies targeted, said Oregon forests lead the nation on environmental standards.

"I'd love to match the water in our forests with water around Portland or any other area," he said.

The NEDC, an environmental law group based at Lewis & Clark College, has used similar Clean Water Act lawsuits against companies releasing pollution into the Columbia Slough and Willamette River. The strategy has proved itself, halting the pollution and causing companies to pay penalties in the form of donations to habitat restoration and other environmental causes.

The Lewis & Clark group, relying heavily on volunteer law students, has amassed water tests and video footage it says prove polluted water is streaming off roads and into Coast Range rivers.

Executive Director Mark Riskedahl said the tests and footage provide evidence of violations. He said he hopes the state and companies will negotiate a solution within the next two months, otherwise the groups will file a lawsuit.

The legal salvo focuses on the Trask and Kilchis rivers, which run into Tillamook Bay. The NEDC and its attorneys -- Cascade Resources Advocacy Group and the Washington Forest Law Center -- contend runoff from ditches or pipes draining forest roads must have permits.

Federal court decisions hint that judges may agree. A federal judge in California ruled in 2004 that a timber company there must obtain permits for discharges from specific points on its road system.

A similar result in the Oregon case could require culverts and other discharge points to have permits limiting how much silt and other debris can be released. That might in turn require renovation of forest road systems.

But Riskedahl said the move is not meant to thwart logging and that the resolution need not be cost-prohibitive.

State forest practice rules require that runoff from roads be directed away from rivers and streams so the muddy water can be filtered through the soil of the forest floor. The state has spent millions of dollars on road systems across the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests to meet that standard, said Keith Mills, forest engineering coordinator with the Department of Forestry.

"We know this is an important issue, and we've really been focusing on making improvements," he said. "The roads are very different now. They're much improved."

Arne Skaugset, a professor at Oregon State University's College of Forestry, agreed. He has led research on runoff from forest roads and said far fewer miles of road now drain into rivers than a decade or more ago.

But Chris Frissell, a fisheries biologist with the Pacific Rivers Council, said the picture worsens during heavy deluges, when much more water spills off roads and pours silt into rivers. The silt makes rivers shallower and less hospitable to fish, he said.

Some sediment is natural, he said, but "it's just that we're pumping it through much faster and in greater volumes."

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Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com

© 2006 The Oregonian.