Spokane’s air quality board decided Thursday to phase out grass field burning - possibly within seven years.
The 3-2 vote was sparked by John Roskelley, Spokane’s newest county commissioner, at his first meeting of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority.
Citing growing evidence that grass smoke is harmful to health, Roskelley said it’s time for action.
Other industries have changed practices for cleaner air, and phasing out field burning would force the grass seed industry to find an alternative, he said.
“Boards are supposed to be making the tough decisions on what’s good for the entire community,” Roskelley said.
Grass burning could be eliminated within seven years, said county Commissioner Steve Hasson, who made the motion to curtail the controversial practice.
Earlier this year, Hasson defended field burning and the grass seed industry’s efforts to fend off more regulations.
But Thursday, he changed his mind, saying he isn’t willing to wait for a state Department of Ecology hearing next spring on alternatives to field burning.
“Our population expects some action from us. We have to get off the dime,” Hasson said.
Hasson, Roskelley and SCAPCA board chairwoman Jan Monaco, director of the Spokane County Medical Society, voted to phase out burning. Fairfield dentist Harry Gibbons and Spokane City Councilman Mike Brewer voted no.
“This year’s (grass burning) season wasn’t a total disaster,” said Brewer, who noted he didn’t want to hurt the region’s grass seed industry.
The time frame for eliminating field burning will be determined after a public hearing, the board agreed.
Angry grass growers assailed the vote, while clean air activists hailed the decision.
“Thank you. This takes courage,” said Cherie Rogers, a clean air activist and Spokane City Planning Commission member.
“What is the basis for this?” asked John Cornwall, president of the Intermountain Grass Growers Association. “We are being singled out. … A seven-year phase-down is not feasible.”
The industry doesn’t have an alternative to burning, which helps grass seed regenerate, Cornwall said. But farmers are searching for one, he said.
Hasson said he’d heard that from grass growers since becoming a commissioner seven years ago.
“If I thought grass burning would be eliminated, I wouldn’t have made this motion. But this (phase-out) will make you fish or cut bait,” Hasson replied.
Also Thursday, Rep. Lisa Brown said she is preparing legislation that would restore SCAPCA’s powers to limit the grass burning season. The Legislature took that authority away from SCAPCA last session.
“I intend to introduce legislation to make it clear that public health considerations should be paramount,” Brown said.
Putting that language into statute will give regulators more clout to curb, and eventually phase out, grass smoke, Brown said.
The minority Democrat’s bill could run into trouble in the Republican-controlled House.
But Brown said it has a “reasonable chance” of a hearing because some Republican legislators are concerned they were misled when they voted last session to yank SCAPCA’s powers to regulate grass growers.
GOP legislators want more “cost-benefit” analysis to weigh the true cost of regulations, and Spokane’s grass burning controversy is a good example, said Brown, an economist and Eastern Washington University professor.
Grass seed industry economics should be weighed against public health costs and other impacts on the region’s quality of life, she said. , DataTimes
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