Logging pollution and Clean Water Act

The Supreme Court recently ruled in an 7-1 vote (Justice Stephen Breyer recused himself) that the EPA regulations about water pollution as mandated by the Clean Water Act did not apply to sediment and other pollution from logging operations. The timber industry is rejoicing over the ruling.  But citizens should be less sanguine than industry. All the ruling demonstrates is the inadequacy of the current regulations governing pollution.

Logging operations are among the biggest sources of water pollution in the country after agriculture. And both Ag and Big Timber have friends in high places that have continued to make regulation of these pollution sources unaccountable to the public and consumers.

In arguing against limitations on such pollution, Ag and Timber, both suggest that internalizing these costs would drive up the price of food and lumber. No doubt they are correct. However, shouldn’t those enjoying the benefit of these products be paying the “real” costs to produce them?

What is happening now is that these industries are externalizing their costs. They are making other people, and the land, suffer the negative impacts of their operations. They get to keep the profits, while the rest of us pick up the tab.

It is another example of privatize profits and socialize costs. Ultimately everyone pays for this pollution. We pay higher costs to filter and treat domestic water. We pay for the recovery of many species harmed by unlimited Ag and logging pollution such as salmon, trout, and other aquatic species. We even ultimately pay by the loss in productivity of the lands as top soil is eroded away reducing the ability of farmland and timberlands to produce valuable products.

The problem is that the Clean Water Act primarily deals with what is known as “point source” pollution. In other words, you can identify a direct point of pollution—a factory pipe dumping chemical wastes directly into a river. The pollution from logging and Ag is more dispersed, and often less concentrated. It is a “non-point” source of pollution. But due to its ubiquitous nature, it is actually a far greater cause of water pollution than the collective impact of “point sources”.

This is one of the problems facing any regulatory agency. It’s easy to identify if a factory is dumping chemicals into a river, but it’s a lot harder to measure, define the source, and regulate non-point pollution sources.

The Clean Water Act has done much to reduce pollution in our Nation’s waterways. Rivers that once were little more than open sewers for domestic and industrial waste have been cleaned up.  Fish have returned. People now swim in waters that were dangerous to enter in the past.  And despite the howls of protest from industry that enforcement of the Clean Water Act would run the country into the ground, we have seen that industry and communities have adjusted.

Given the current limits of the Clean Water Act, the Supreme Court probably could come to no other conclusion than to deny the appellant’s case. But that doesn’t mean it was wrong to bring the case or to try to correct the injustice.  Just because something is legal does not make it right. Slavery was legal for a long time in our country, but almost no one (except perhaps the Ku Klux Klan) would argue that slavery was a good thing.

Subsidies distort the free market. If the real costs of water pollution are included in the price we pay for farm produce and wood products, it sends a price signal to consumers. Consumers might respond by choosing crops or wood products that are produced without significant contribution to water degradation. It would level the playing field. Right now those timber producers and farmers/ranchers who are interested in protecting the environment must internalize a cost that other producers can avoid—this discourages good conservation measures.

Given the terrible cost to everyone of the on-going non-point water pollution it’s time to amend the Clean Water Act to include non-point pollution.  We are paying the price of negligence every day.




  1. don Avatar

    WASHINGTON, D.C. March 18, 2013 – Today the Supreme Court let stand a decision from the En Banc panel of 11 judges of the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that essentially establishes that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) trumps the 1872 Mining Act. Recreational mining groups had filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking that they overturn the lower court decision, but the petition was denied.


  2. don Avatar

    “Subsidies distort the free market.”

    If by free market one means a market free of subsidies, then no such free market has ever existed. Government intervention and other factors have always existed to one degree or another, whether directly or indirectly, so that a ‘free’ market has never existed. But the myth of a free market persists as an ideology that has been used to justify de-regulation and privatization.

    It is high time conservationists abandon this notion of a free market.

  3. Barb Rupers Avatar
    Barb Rupers

    The early December rains in western Oregon during 2007 caused a lot of damage on our property primarily by taking out fences that protected recently plant orchards and riparian vegetation from beaver damage, filling in a pond that had been used for many years by western pond turtles, and depositing a lot of silt and wood debris in the areas flooded. I have little doubt that the recent logging by Weyerhaeuser and others in the headwaters of the two creeks that converge here was the cause for the intensity of the flood.

    Weyerhaeuser Chehalis River drainage Washington from early December storm, 2007

  4. Snaildarter Avatar

    Stream buffers should be maintained by timber companies just like everyone else but agriculture is exempt from the Clean water act. I know we never could have gotten the CWA paased without that exemption but still it is a real shame to see the distruction of the streams as well as the forest.

  5. john Avatar

    note scalia was the only dissenter,, hmmmm,, mean old activist judge!! roberts allows healthcare,, whew,, must be something in the cool aid at the supreme court,,

  6. Wolfy Avatar

    What a whacky turn of events. A gov’t agency can’t enforce its own regulations, big Ag/industry takes them to court, and the court overturns its own laws. I remember when the EPA act was passed. It was clearly meant to protect our soil, air and water. How did we get down this road where the worst polluters get a free pass and someone with a residential wood stove may be breaking the law? “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

  7. Bob Anderson Avatar

    That’s the problem these days. What good is the EPA if they cherry pick what laws they will and won’t enforce?


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner