Environmental group files lawsuit over fire retardant

Environmental group files lawsuit over fire retardant
2002 Fall River fish kill cited as example

03 April 2008

published by www.bendbulletin.com

Fire retardant has an impact on the environment, according to the nonprofit Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, and so the organization is challenging the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to continue using the firefighting tool.

“For the Forest Service to make a finding of no significant impact is delusional,” said Andy Stahl, the executive director of the organization. “If this stuff gets dumped in streams, the effect is always significant.”

There’s no better example of that, he said, than what happened in Central Oregon’s Fall River in 2002, when retardant was dropped into the river, killing about 22,000 fish.

“It basically sterilized the stream for miles,” he said.

The Forest Service completed an environmental assessment on the issue in February. While chemicals in the retardant can be toxic to fish and other aquatic species, the agency determined that with regulations limiting how close to waterways it can be dropped, retardant should still be a firefighting tool. It also found that in Oregon no species would be killed off by the retardant.

A federal judge upheld the assessment, said Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, and the agency is moving forward with the elements of that decision, which include a 300-foot buffer zone around waterways where retardant can’t be dropped, additional testing of the retardant and monitoring in places where it is used.

The 300-foot buffer has been in place since 2000 and has been very successful, she said.

But biological opinions from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service showed that fire retardant jeopardizes the survival of dozens of threatened or endangered species, Stahl said, and the Forest Service’s plan would still allow fire retardant to be dropped on a stream if it’s necessary to fight a fire.

Stahl said he hopes that the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in a federal court in Montana, will not only force the Forest Service to take another look at the fire retardant issue but also examine its overall firefighting strategy.

“What we’re trying to do here is use the issue of fire retardant to get at a much bigger societal issue, which is how do we deal with fire,” he said.

Firefighting accounts for more than half of the Forest Service’s budget, he said, and so scientists and the general public should be able to have a say on fire policy in national forests.

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