Grass burning season is under way, and the political fires are burning as hot as the stubble.
Hundreds of Spokane County residents are angry about a new state law that weakens the power of local air quality cops to limit the burning season - expanding potential days to torch fields from 16 to 25 within a 47-day burning “window” that began Aug. 15.
“It’s a money issue to the farmers. But I usually end up in the hospital when the fields burn,” said Emily Bradford, 22, a college student with severe asthma.
Growers in the $90 million industry who lobbied for the law say the longer season gives them a better chance to manage the smoke so it doesn’t blow into urban areas. They promise not to burn on Fridays, weekends and on Labor Day.
The farmers got the law changed by arguing they are victims of an overzealous bureaucracy, according to testimony from the state Senate hearing in February.
Spokane’s rules were “purposely designed to put us out of the grass growing business in Spokane County under the hidden agenda of air quality,” said John Cornwall, president of the 450-member Intermountain Grass Growers’ Association, at the Senate hearing.
Clean air groups weren’t told about the bill beforehand and weren’t invited to testify. Neither were local elected officials or air quality regulators.
“By the time the public knew, it had passed both houses and was signed by Gov. Lowry,” said Eric Skelton, director of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority.
Clean air groups say the relaxed rules are a big step backward for Spokane’s 15,000 asthma sufferers, and for vulnerable children.
“The citizens of Spokane aren’t being heard. There are only 106 grass growers in Spokane County, and there are 400,000 citizens,” said Patricia Hoffman, a Spokane veterinarian who recently founded Save Our Summers, a group opposing field burning.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is under legal pressure to tighten national safety standards for small particulates in the air from road dust, wood and grass smoke, cars and industrial pollution because several recent studies link them to increased respiratory disease and even death.
The anti-regulatory mood that sent conservatives into Olympia, Washington, D.C., and Spokane County government this year is the reason for the growers’ success in changing the laws in Olympia, political observers say.
Now, growers want even fewer controls on their industry. They want SCAPCA to scrap its acreage caps and a plan to gradually reduce grass field burning.
The caps, established in 1990, are based on the largest number of acres burned on each farm from 1985-89. Farmers can burn no more than 35,000 acres countywide. They burned 25,000 acres last year, and have permits to torch 26,864 acres this year.
Growers say they have no alternative to burning, which shocks grass plants into producing new seed.
“Some industries pollute daily. We pollute during a short period of the year, and the benefits of producing bluegrass far outweigh the smoke,” Cornwall said.
Bluegrass growers from south Spokane County sprinkled new GOP Commissioner Phil Harris’ campaign coffers with nearly $1,500, according to Public Disclosure Commission records.
Harris now sits on the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority board with Steve Hasson, the Democrat-turned Republican.
At a SCAPCA public workshop on July 18, more than 90 percent of the 369 people who spoke or submitted written testimony were against grass burning. About 250 of those people asked that burning be stopped immediately for health reasons.
At a SCAPCA meeting on Aug. 3, Harris appeared to discount the testimony, saying he needed more “walking around” time to make up his mind. “We’re getting dangerously close to making a decision based on emotion,” he said.
The SCAPCA board voted to delay any grass-burning reforms for another three months.
In an interview last week, Harris bristled when asked about the growers’ contributions to his campaign.
“You’re impugning my integrity,” he said. “I’m not beholden to anyone.”
In recent weeks, the SCAPCA board has tugged agency director Skelton in opposite directions over air quality issues.
Board members want daily monitoring of the smelly Colbert compost plant, with orders to issue repeated air quality violations if SCAPCA inspectors smell anything.
But on the grass burning issue, the board is signaling it may ease up on the growers and let “market forces” determine how many acres are burned each year.
Some of the growers already have expanded their Kentucky bluegrass fields while awaiting a SCAPCA board order to ax the acreage cap, said Martha Dailey, executive director of the Intermountain Grass Growers’ Association.
“We don’t know what’s taking them so long,” Dailey said.
But air quality activists are fighting back. They say the industry’s end run to the Legislature shattered a fiveyear truce.
“We are no longer convinced the farmers have been acting in good faith,” said Yvonne Bucklin, executive director of the American Lung Association of Washington.
After heavy pollution from grass burning in 1989, the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce formed the Inland Northwest Field Burning Summit to bring all the parties together - Washington and Idaho growers, activists, regulators and Indian tribes.
The 14-member summit met for five years, setting guidelines for field burning. It did not come to an agreement for this year’s season because of controversy over the new state law.
Clean-air activists are complaining to Lowry and to state Sen. Jim West, saying the new law runs counter to the summit’s goals.
West is backpedaling on his earlier support. He could not be reached for comment.
But his administrative assistant, Dan Steele, said West supported the bill as a favor to its prime sponsor, Sen. Valoria Loveland, D-Pasco.
The bill was altered from a broad directive that said a local air authority can’t pass laws more stringent than the state’s to a piece of special interest legislation for grass growers, Steele said.
“If he (West) had been told about these drastic changes, he wouldn’t have supported it. The rest of the Legislature was misled too. This needs to be revisited,” Steele said.
West never replied to the lung association’s request for an explanation of why he supported the bill, Bucklin said.
“If that’s how laws are made in Olympia, perhaps in the future we should be more careful about who we send over there to represent us,” said Hoffman of the Save Our Summers group.
Since Aug. 15, only a few hundred acres in north Spokane County have been burned. Complaints about smoke have come from the Mount Spokane area, said SCAPCA’s Ron Edgar.
On Wednesday, the air agency got calls about smoke blowing in from the Columbia Basin. Others groused about grass smoke in North Idaho, where the Spokane agency has no jurisdiction, Edgar said.
The majority of Spokane’s bluegrass fields in the south of the county haven’t been torched yet because the winds have been blowing the wrong direction and farmers aren’t finished with harvest. SCAPCA gives growers a daily weather advisory to guide their burning decisions.
While burning gets under way, the lung association plans to keep up the pressure to reduce the smoke, Bucklin said.
Asthma sufferer Bradford applauds the renewed activism.
“Grass farmers don’t understand what it’s like to wake up at 1 a.m. struggling to breathe,” she said.
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