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Government watchdog says logging companies need better environmental protection practices for construction of roads and bridges

Derek Crowe/The Globe and Mail

Logging road and bridge construction is putting drinking water quality at risk in some community watersheds, according to a special investigation by British Columbia's Forest Practices Board.

But logging itself – the cutting of trees – is being done in a way that doesn't have significant impact on drinking water quality, said the report released Tuesday.

"When it comes to logging, we're doing a good job – but we've got to pay more attention to our roads and bridges," Tim Ryan, chair of the Forest Practices Board, said in an interview.

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Mr. Ryan said the investigation found that forest companies in B.C. have developed "a culture" of protecting streams, lakes and wetlands by leaving buffer strips of unlogged forest along the water's edge.

But he said that same commitment to environmental protection, which developed over the past 20 years, is not being applied to the construction work associated with logging operations, which is adding sediment to watersheds.

"What is it in terms of forest activity that impacts quality most easily? That's anywhere you put a blade on the ground. It's the road construction, bridge building, stream crossings," Mr. Ryan said. "Where you expose mineral soil, you've got to do that in a manner that minimizes and mitigates the risk of erosion or [of putting] water-borne sedimentation into the streams."

Mr. Ryan said road building practices have improved, however, because the study found that old roads are contributing most heavily to sedimentation problems.

"There's a little nuance in here that we need to pick up on," he said of the report. "Because 70 per cent of the problems that we found were [old] roads, we're talking 20-, 30-, 40-year-old roads that were constructed under a different mindset and rules of the day. Those roads are still impacting those watersheds today."

Mr. Ryan said 15 per cent of the problems in watersheds can be attributed to newer roads, built under current regulations, and another 15 per cent of problems are due to other activities in community watersheds, such as mining, power line construction or off-road recreational activities.

Sedimentation is a problem, he said, because it impacts filtration systems and can carry harmful bacteria into drinking water.

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The report is critical of the government for allowing forest regulations to focus on water quality as measured at its end point, rather than at its source. "Right now the forest legislation refers to water quality coming out of the treatment facility – so at the tap, versus water quality up the watershed," said Mr. Ryan, who said the government should put more emphasis on protecting water at its source.

The report also states that while most logging operations are in compliance with forest regulations, violations were found in about one-third of the areas where ground inspections were conducted.

The study looked at how the Forest Range and Practices Act is applied in a sample of 48 of the 131 community watersheds in B.C. where forest harvesting occurs.

Will Koop, of the BC Tapwater Alliance, wondered why the report draws a distinction between logging and the construction of roads and bridges which are needed to facilitate logging. "If there were no incursions into community watersheds, you wouldn't have any of these [sedimentation] problems to worry about," Mr. Koop said.

"We take the protection of drinking water very seriously," Forest Minister Steve Thomson said in an e-mail.

"We welcome the board's thorough analysis and appreciate the board's recommendations, which we will review thoroughly."

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The Forest Practices Board is an independent watchdog agency which operates at arm's length from government in auditing forestry operations.

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