- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2003

Using fire retardant to stop the spread of wildfires is toxic to the environment, say activists who have filed a notice of intent to sue the federal government to stop the practice.

When air tankers release retardant to contain a fire, it can pollute streams and kill marine life, the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) said in its letter of intent to the Forest Service.

The FSEEE wants the Forest Service to conduct studies and tests, particularly on endangered and threatened species, and acquire necessary permits before using retardant during future forest fires.

House lawmakers said such a lawsuit banning retardant — which contains mostly fertilizer — would be frivolous and criticized the timing of the threat just prior to the summer wildfire season.

“Honestly, are the people at FSEEE drinking the retardant?” said Rep. Richard W. Pombo, California Republican and chairman of the House Resources Committee. “Certainly something is responsible for retarding common sense and reality over there.”

A spokesman for the Forest Service said the service does not comment on pending legislation. No one was available at the National Interagency Fire Center Friday to discuss the use of retardant.

Nearly 18 million gallons of retardant are used a year, and Andy Stahl, FSEEE executive director, said some retardant compounds contain cyanide and ammonium sulfate, which are toxic to fish.

Some manufactures warn against dumping retardant into streams and the Forest Service has guidelines for pilots to maintain a 300-foot buffer, but “accidents happen,” Mr. Stahl said. The Associated Press reported that accidental spills in Oregon “have been deadly.”

“Dumping a bomber-size load into a stream should be front-page news, yet the Forest Service does that at sufficient concentrations,” Mr. Stahl said.

Timothy Ingalsbee, director of the Western Fire Ecology Center, said the wildfires could be better contained by proactive management of fuels and prioritizing which fires to fight.

“The problem we are in is from fighting all fires, in all places, at all times, and at all costs. We are fighting fires blindly because there is no firefighting plan and we are fighting fires without any thought to its cost,” Mr. Ingalsbee said.

The environmentalists say the government is not in compliance with the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and should conduct an environmental impact statement and endangered species biological assessments.

With more than 70 million acres of forest land designated at extreme risk of catastrophic wildfire, Mr. Pombo said, the idea of shelving retardant is “insane.”

“These radical environmental lawsuits are not just frivolous anymore. They are irresponsible and dangerous,” Mr. Pombo said.

President Bush’s healthy forest initiative goes before the House tomorrow for a vote and would ease some government regulations and allow tree-thinning to prevent fires. If the plan fails, forests will have “bigger environmental problems than fertilizer,” Mr. Pombo said.

“Forest fires ruin wildlife habitat, contaminate water supplies, pollute the air, incinerate houses and kill people,” Mr. Pombo said.

The Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act require the government be given 60 days’ notice to comply with the laws to avoid legal action. Mr. Stahl said the Forest Service can act in time to avoid court action.

“There is really no reason why there should be litigation; 60 days is enough time,” he said.

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