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Closing Range

Retardant Justice

Environmentalists’ campaign to stop war on fire

It must be spring. After all, environmentalists have “sprung” at least six or seven new lawsuits on the Northwest court system the past couple weeks – and Earthjustice is about ready to file against delisting Northern Rockies wolves.

But it’s a just-dismissed lawsuit that has my attention, especially since I just got “carded” for this year’s fire season. It was filed by the Eugene, Oregon-based, so-called Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) in District Judge Donald Molloy’s Missoula courtroom, way back in October 2003. I’ll spare you the stultifying federal acronym soup.

On the surface, FSEEE basically sued the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in order to force a full-blown paperwork shuffle on the environmental effects of air-dropped fire retardants.

Judge Molloy took two years to rule for the paperwork shuffle, in October 2005, at which point FSEEE crowed “Group Wins Lawsuit to Protect Firefighters and the Environment From Toxic Aerial Fire Retardant.”

But the use of chemical retardants hasn’t been stopped. FSEEE never asked for that to begin with. Molloy’s 35-page ruling specifically pointed out the case was not about the safety or toxicity of retardants per se, but only a procedural case affirming the need to shuffle paper if and when “substantial questions” of environmental impact “may” exist.

The already overwhelmed Forest Service dragged butt on the shuffle, goading Judge Molloy into threatening Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey with jail unless the paperwork hit Molloy’s desk – which it did in late February 2008.

The Forest Service concluded that using retardant poses no “significant environmental impact” to Judge Molloy, who dismissed the case March 12.

Now, after four-plus years, FSEEE spokesman Andy Stahl (the guy who made “spotted owl” a household word) is telling reporters his group intends to file ANOTHER lawsuit over retardant in Molloy’s court. It’s all part of what Missoulian reporter John Cramer terms “another decade-long campaign” to stop “the war on fire.”

With the “no significant impact” paperwork from USFS in hand, FSEEE apparently now plans to attack the paperwork in court, in the hopes of finding an uncrossed T or undotted I that will bring about a legal injunction against retardant use.

Now, how much environmental impact is at issue? Bomber slurry is basically 85 percent water, 15 percent fertilizer. The fertilizer binds the water, slowing evaporation, plus it sticks to everything it lands on. A bomber line of slurry therefore stays more effective at slowing or stopping a fire’s advance for a longer time than plain water drops. It works … so well that the Forest Service uses 15- to 40-million gallons of slurry per year. Using a 2,700-gallon P2V Neptune tanker as an “average” slurry bomber, that comes out to at least 5,500 to 14,800 “bomb runs” a year.

In its complaint, FSEEE raised the issue of retardant drops directly into streams or lakes, citing one in 1996, one in 2000, one in 2003, and most scandalous of all, a 2002 Oregon drop into a stream that killed 20,000 fish. Bad? Of course, but one run out of 5,000 (or more) is objectively a darned low “defect” rate for such technical flying. Never mind that Eugene’s ecotopians probably eat 20,000 organically-killed fish a week.

Nuts? Yep, yet FSEEE righteously claims its “mission is to forge a socially responsible value system for the U.S. Forest Service.” They intend to ram their retardant version of social responsibility through the courts, and just might.

Don’t be surprised if FSEEE files their case, and on some trivial technicality, an injunction comes down at the worst possible time. Some poor fire boss will have to announce: “Folks, we need to ground our air fleet and wash out the tanks today. We’re also pulling all our crews, as the bombers were the last chance we had of holding this line without killing someone. Sorry. The judge says a one in 5,000 chance of killing a few minnows overrides any of your trivial concerns. We hope you got your heirlooms and families out in time, have a nice day.”

Retardant justice, indeed.

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