It looks like a great way to put out a forest fire but environmentalists claim the chemicals in aerial retardant drops are overused, and especially harmful to fish. One group has even sued the U.S. Forest Service and the judge in that case has ordered the forest service to complete a long-awaited environmental study or agency director, Mark Rey, could face contempt of court charges and even jail time. It can be an important tool in the fight against fire — the red material, often dropped from low-flying airplanes, is mostly water mixed with fertilizer designed to slow down and not necessarily extinguish a raging forest fire. “Retardant is one of a lot of tools we have,” says Matt Mathes, who is the California spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. “Retardant does not put fires out. Air tankers and helicopters, they look great in the air, but they don’t put fires out. What they do is they slow the fire’s behavior down, so the men and women on the ground can get a handle on it.” The U.S. Forest Service started using aerial retardants in the 1960’s. Through the years, procedures and chemicals have been refined, but never thoroughly studied. The fertilizer in the retardant contains ammonium phosphate, which can kill fish. Last year, the forest service announced it would stop using one chemical, sodium ferrocyanide because it proved especially deadly to fish. In 2003, an Oregon group filed suit against the forest service, demanding the agency conduct a formal study of the environmental impacts after 20-thousand fish were killed by retardant drops near Eugene. “The forest service uses a lot of these chemicals. They drop up to 40-million gallons of fire retardant in one year. We do know that when this substance has been dropped on streams, tens of thousands of fish have died, almost instantly. ” says Kristina Johnson, Sierra Club. “we do know that when this substance has been dropped on streams, tens of thousands of fish have died, almost instantly. “)) However, according to the forest service, in the four decades they’ve been using these retardant drops, there have been very few incidences of actual damage to the environment. “Now the reality is that out of hundreds of thousands of drops, nationwide, since 1990, we only know of eight times when the retardant got into the water and not all those drops resulted in dead fish,” says Matt Mathes. Despite the lawsuit, the forest service balked at conducting the environmental study, until a Montana judge ordered it completed by this month. Environmentalists don’t necessarily want to stop all the aerial drops, but contend they should be used upon only in extreme circumstances, when human lives are immediately threatened. “It’s something that should really only be used to protect firefighters and other people,” says Kristina Johnson. A judge has ordered the forest service complete its retardant study, no later than October 15th.