Judge Rules Wildfire Retardant Violates United States Water Law

Judge Rules Wildfire Retardant Violates United States Water Law

In May 2023, a Federal Judge ruled that the nation’s clean water law was being violated by the United States Forest Service (USFS). The USFS has utilized planes to dump fire retardant chemicals onto forest fires in the Western United States. The ruling follows a lawsuit filed by the nonprofit group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) in 2022 against the USFS.

United States District Judge Dana Christensen ruled that the USFS is in violation of the Clean Water Act, stating that these chemical drops have a negative impact on marine life and are not effective at fighting fires. However, stopping short of disallowing the agency to continue the drops, Judge Christensen stated that the damage threat of wildfires takes precedence over other concerns and that the USFS had already started pursuing a permit from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

What is the Clean Water Act?

The Clean Water Act (CWA) was enacted by the 92nd United States Congress. It was put into effect on October 18, 1972. The CWA made it against the law to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable water, unless a permit was obtained. The act also put the EPA’s permit system, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, in control of discharges.

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 served as the first major United States law to address the issue of water pollution. Amended in 1972 due to the growing public concern for water pollution, the act became commonly known as the CWA. The law has gone through many revisions and has been affected by the changes to other laws over the years, including in 1981, 1987, and 1990.

A Burning Problem

According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), as of September 14th, 42,268 total wildfires have occurred in 2023. This number is down 16.5% from this date in 2022 (50,648). Currently, there are an estimated 69 wildfires, having burned 468,472 aces in 12 states (Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Louisiana, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Florida, and Utah). The NIFC currently has the National Wildland Fire Preparedness Level set at 3 (scale of 1-5).