EPA Fails to Address Major Source of Water Pollution: Forest Road Runoff

June 27, 2016


EPA Fails to Address Major Source of Water Pollution: Forest Road Runoff       

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today decided not to protect our nation’s rivers and streams from polluted water running off of forest roads. A court ordered the agency to consider regulations from this significant pollution source more than 10 years ago.

Today’s announcement comes 17 years after co-plaintiffs Environmental Defense Center (EDC) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) initially challenged EPA’s 1999 stormwater regulations for failing to address forest road runoff.

“EPA’s decision not to regulate polluted runoff from our nation’s forest roads is a lost opportunity for much-needed improvements in water quality for public health, wildlife and recreation,” said Maggie Hall, staff attorney for Environmental Defense Center. “Our waterways continue to remain at risk from runoff from forest roads, and after almost two decades of delay, we had certainly hoped for more.” 

In 2003, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered EPA to examine the evidence on forest road runoff to determine whether it is necessary to regulate that water pollution source. However, EPA never acted and the groups had to return to court in December 2014 to compel EPA to comply with the 2003 ruling. As a result, EPA agreed to a court-ordered settlement with a deadline to decide whether regulation of forest road runoff is necessary to protect water quality.

EPA regulations for forest road runoff would have led to the development of appropriate pollution control rules to address this pollution.

“Nearly 75 percent of Americans rely on forest lands for good quality water,” said Marlies Wierenga, Pacific Northwest conservation manager for WildEarth Guardians. “We are shocked that EPA would not take steps to protect this invaluable water. In these days of drought and climate change, it’s imperative to keep our nation’s drinking water flowing clear and clean and that requires action.”


Our nation’s forests are covered in a vast web of roads. These roads—many of them dirt or gravel—are used for logging, recreation, fire protection, or other purposes.  Though seemingly harmless, forest roads spread out like spiderwebs across our landscapes and dump tons of sediment into waterways with every rainstorm.  Sediment pours into rural and urban drinking water systems clogging filters and unnecessarily piling on extra costs to water suppliers and ratepayers. This sediment pollution settles into riverbeds and suffocates fish eggs (such as salmon and bull trout), harming aquatic wildlife.

While cities and towns have worked to reduce stormwater pollution over the last decades, EPA has routinely avoided addressing forest roads, despite the Clean Water Act requirement to regulate sources of stormwater pollution as necessary to protect water quality.  As such, water suppliers will have to continue to invest millions of dollars to remove sediment, when simple, less-costly, protection mechanisms at the source would have the greatest benefit, and this pollution will continue to harm wildlife. 

Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Center initially challenged EPA’s Phase II stormwater regulations for failure to meet Clean Water Act requirements by failing to address water pollution from forest road runoff in 1999. In 2003, the 9th Circuit Court remanded four aspects of the 1999 Phase II rule to EPA, including EPA’s failure to include forest roads in the Phase II Rule. In August 2015, EPA agreed to a deadline to address the issue, after NRDC and EDC filed a petition to enforce the duties it imposed on EPA.

WildEarth Guardians and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, represented by Paul Kampmeier at the Washington Forest Law Center and Chris Winter at the CRAG Law Center, filed a friend of the court brief in the 9th Circuit in support of NRDC and EDC.


Federal Register Notice: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-06/documents/forest_roads_fr_decision_notice_final_pre-pub_version.pdf

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Bozeman, Montana; and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

The Environmental Defense Center (EDC), a non-profit law firm, protects and enhances the local environment through education, advocacy, and legal action and works primarily within Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties. Since 1977, EDC has empowered community based organizations to advance environmental protection. Program areas include protecting coast and ocean resources, open spaces and wildlife, and human and environmental health. Learn more about EDC at www.EnvironmentalDefenseCenter.org

WildEarth Guardians is a nonprofit environmental organization with 168,000 members and supporters.  Initially founded in 1989 to protect forests in northern New Mexico, WildEarth Guardians mission has expanded to protect and restores the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and health of the American West with offices in Santa Fe, Denver, Missoula, Tucson and Portland.  Learn more at: http://www.wildearthguardians.org

Northwest Environmental Defense Center was established by a group of professors, law students and attorney alumni at Lewis and Clark Law School in 1969. NEDC is an independent non-profit organization working to protect the environment and natural resources of the Pacific Northwest. https://law.lclark.edu/centers/northwest_environmental_defense_center/

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