For the first time, Idaho grass growers who break the burning rules face fines.
Burning without a permit or torching fields on a “no burn” day will fetch a $500 fine, plus a penalty of $10 for every acre burned, said Terry Christianson of the state Division of Environmental Quality. Burning after hours, using poor fire management, or violating other permit conditions draws a $250 fine.
An enforcement team - with representatives from the Intermountain Grass Growers Association, DEQ, and the Idaho Smoke Management Board - will hand down penalties in most of North Idaho.
Tribal officials will police growers on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation. It’s up to each enforcement team to decide what constitutes poor fire management.
Part of the proceeds from the fines will go toward research into alternatives to burning. Growers use fire to clear stubble fields after harvest and they say it also boosts yields of the next crop.
The fines are the most significant change to come from an updated agreement among growers, environmentalists and regulatory agencies. It is not clear whether the penalties have the force of state law.
That doesn’t matter because growers have “never been out of compliance,” said John Cornwall, a Fairfield, Wash., farmer and president of the Intermountain Grass Growers. That’s not going to change this year, he said.
About 40 grass growers raise bluegrass and turf seed on 30,000 acres in North Idaho. Along with several hundred Eastern Washington grass farmers, they raise a crop worth $185 million in 1994. That crop provides 1,500 full- and part-time jobs, said Martha Dailey, executive secretary of the Grass Growers.
This year, there also is a new network of air quality monitors that will give DEQ a more immediate handle of how much smoke is in the air. DEQ installed new monitoring equipment in Post Falls, Coeur d’Alene and north of Hayden. One of the new machines was installed in Sandpoint last year.
The new agreement sets hourly limits for air pollution. Growers, who are in radio contact with regulatory officials, have agreed to stop lighting fields when smoke from any source exceeds those levels.
That’s welcome news to the Sandpoint-based Clean Air Coalition.
“Unfortunately, we are still the downwind guys and the smoke affects our health and our tourism industry,” said Art Long, coalition president. “As long as there is field burning, which is pretty much a political reality in Idaho, we consider this a good sound agreement for smoke management.”
Growers met this morning to set the dates for this year’s grass burning season. But rain delayed a decision for at least a week.
North Idaho farmers will be allowed 14 burning days over a 45-day period. The 1995 Washington Legislature eliminated the ability of state and local regulators to limit the number of field-burning days.