Conservation Groups Challenge Permit to Pollute Elk River

By
Tuesday, January 17th, 2017
Elk River Rd Flooding

Elk River Flooding. Photo courtesy of Elk River Resident’s Association

Pollution exacerbates flooding and ecosystem damage

EPIC and the North Group, Redwood Chapter Sierra Club filed a petition with the State Water Quality Control Board challenging last minute changes to a new permit issued by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board to allow Humboldt Redwood Company to discharge sediment pollution into the Elk River, near Eureka.

On November 30, 2016, the Regional Board held a hearing on the permit. At the hearing, the Regional Board made numerous changes that effectively removed many key clean water protections and passed the order. The Regional Board’s actions not only frustrated public participation, but also violated state law by failing to provide adequate protections for the severely impaired Elk River.

“We need to ensure clean water and this decision doesn’t do that,” said Tom Wheeler, Program Director at EPIC. “In a controversial situation like this, where the government is permitting more pollution in an already degraded river, we need more public participation not less.”

The Elk River is the largest freshwater tributary to Humboldt Bay, flowing from its headwaters in the coastal mountains of Northwest California to Humboldt Bay. The majority of the Upper Elk River subwatershed is composed of steep (>35%) and easily erodible soils. Intensive logging by Pacific Lumber Co., beginning in 1986, left the weak and unstable slopes susceptible to sediment pollution from landsliding and surface runoff. In short time, the once clear Elk River filled with muck, infilling the river channel. This infilling has lessened the flow capacity of the river, meaning that during storm events, the river quickly floods. This flooding is more than a mere nuisance for residents of the Elk River watershed. Flooding has put lives at risk by closing important local roads and destroyed property, including homes.

Although Pacific Lumber Co. went bankrupt, issues in Elk River remain. Humboldt Redwood Co., which purchased land in the Elk River watershed from Pacific Lumber Co., continues to discharge sediment pollution, albeit in much smaller amounts. Humboldt Redwood Co. sought a permit from the Regional Board to allow further pollution. This permit, called a “waste discharge requirement,” has been in development for over a year and the public has been involved in its development.

In their petition for administrative review, EPIC and North Group, Redwood Chapter Sierra Club seek to remand the permit back to the Regional Water Quality Control Board with instructions to protect clean water and ensure public participation.