EPA proposes new rules for muddy logging roads

The Obama administration wants to change the rules applying to stormwater running off logging roads, blunting a landmark court ruling that found the muddy water running into salmon streams and drinking water reservoirs should be regulated like industrial pollution.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed notice Wednesday in the Federal Register proposing to revise stormwater regulations to say hundreds of thousands of miles of logging roads on private and public lands nationwide don't need the same kinds of permits that factories must get. Some of the roads are paved, but most are graveled, and some are bare dirt.

Instead, they would be regulated under a less stringent system known as "Best Management Practices," where authorities set up guidelines for the design and maintenance of logging roads to minimize erosion that sends mud into rivers. EPA is reviewing how states and tribes handle the issue, and plans to issue the new rules by Sept. 30, when an exemption for the timber industry enacted by Congress expires.

EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said the agency was taking advantage of flexibility within the Clean Water Act and would consider a full range of approaches that did not require permits.

The EPA rulemaking comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to hear the case. The high court asked the Obama administration's top lawyer to suggest whether the question needed higher review. The U.S. Solicitor General's brief is expected in a few days.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2010 that the muddy water running off roads used in industrial logging is the same as any other industrial pollution, requiring a Clean Water Act permit from EPA. The case was brought by the Northwest Environmental Defense Center in Portland, Ore., against the Oregon Department of Forestry over logging roads on the Tillamook State Forest.

The timber industry said maintaining the status quo through best management practices as suggested by EPA was the best course, but urged Congress to make permanent the temporary exemption granted the timber industry after the appeals court ruling.

"If allowed to stand, the 9th Circuit approach will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, kill thousands of jobs and invite protracted litigation over permit technicalities without any corresponding environmental benefit," Dave Tenny, president of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, said in a statement. "Federal, state, tribal and private resource professionals agree that complicated and costly federal permits will not make our rivers and streams any cleaner."

Mark Riskedahl, executive director of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, said industrial permits would provide better protection for salmon habitat and clean drinking water than best management practices, and EPA could award blanket permits similar to those held by the Oregon Department of Transportation for paved roads to makes things less complicated.

"EPA ought to provide clarity and certainty through guidance and rule-making, but the substance of the proposal is off-base," he said in an email. "EPA has long recognized that there are some industrial logging activities and logging roads that pollute streams and require (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permits. We will continue advocating that permits are required for industrial-scale activities, while looking for opportunities to be flexible or responsive to concerns about small forest landowners and non-industrial logging activities."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.