A fine mess

New Environmental Protection Agency rules issued last week have muddied the waters of a Supreme Court case over runoff from logging roads. The high court could decide not to rule in the case after all, or it could proceed anyway. Congress could act to resolve the issue as well. Either way, the dispute should be settled, not left to drag on through the courts for years to come.

At issue is storm water that runs off logging roads on public and private forestlands. If allowed to flow into streams and rivers, the sediment in this muddy water can harm fish runs.

For decades, federal policy has considered this runoff "nonpoint source" pollution, similar to runoff from farm fields. An environmental group in Portland sued in 2006, saying the EPA was violating the Clean Water Act, which requires such discharge to be treated as "point source" pollution, such as a pipe dumping effluent from a factory.

That would require a federal permit for every ditch, pipe and culvert on logging roads across the country.

A federal court denied the claim, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned. The state of Oregon and the timber industry asked the Supreme Court to settle the issue.

Last Friday — just before oral arguments in the case set for Monday — the EPA released new final regulations clarifying that stormwater from logging roads would not be treated like "point source" pollution.

Environmentalists want the Supreme Court to drop the case. The timber industry wants a decision, even taking the chance that the court could rule against it.

No one is suggesting that logging operations should be allowed to dump unlimited sediment into streams and rivers. State best practices rules have been in effect on logging roads in Oregon for years.

But to require timber operations to obtain a federal permit for every culvert would be a bureaucratic nightmare, causing delays and costing money and jobs. If the high court decides not to rule, the issue will drag on for years to come as environmentalists file new lawsuits.

Congress could resolve the matter by clarifiying the Clean Water Act as it applies to logging roads. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, Rep. Greg Walden and Rep. Kurt Schrader are supporting efforts to do that.

Congress should move to settle this issue once and for all, regardless of what the Supreme Court decides to do.

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