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Court rules Forest Service fire retardant drops violate water quality standards

An airplane drops retardant on a grass fire burning on Mount Sentinel in Missoula, MT, August 20, 2020.
Peyton Butler
An airplane drops retardant on a grass fire burning on Mount Sentinel in Missoula, MT, August 20, 2020.

A federal court in Missoula ruled Friday that the U.S. Forest Service is violating federal law by contaminating waterways with toxic fire retardant.

The court ruled the Forest Service can still use fire retardant for now, but the agency will be required to obtain a permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA will regulate how much retardant can be dropped into waterways while still complying with water quality standards.

Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics filed the lawsuit.

“It’s going to be a narrow needle that EPA has to thread when it comes to writing this permit,” Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, said.

The Forest Service says it has already applied for the permit.

Steve Ellis with the National Association of Forest Service Retirees worries the EPA could hamper fire managers’ ability to control extreme wildfires.

“You’ve got to make decisions in a matter of minutes. If what comes out the other end is constraining, that’s a problem,” Ellis said.

Ellis hopes federal regulators will make exceptions for the protection of life and property.

The permitting process is expected to take over two years.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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