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Grass Growers Want To Expand Acreage ‘We Get The Message,’ Ads Say; Petitions Push For More Bluegrass

Spokane County grass growers say they’re heeding public anger about smoke from field burning. But they also are pushing to expand their bluegrass fields.

The Intermountain Grass Growers Association recently took out full-page newspaper ads promising a review of field burning which smudges Spokane’s skies each year.

“We get the message,” the growers said.

Half of the county’s 106 grass growers are petitioning the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority to plant more bluegrass, which is burned after harvest to stimulate the next crop.

Under the state Clean Air Act, SCAPCA can limit the number of acres farmers burn each year because Spokane periodically flunks clean air standards.

The growers had permits to burn 26,864 acres this year, but they burned only about 22,000 due to bad weather during the burning season which ended Sept. 30.

SCAPCA Director Eric Skelton has denied 30 of the 53 growers’ petitions to expand the crop.

If growers win appeals of Skelton’s denials, they would be able to burn several thousand more acres. SCAPCA’s board will hear the first group of appeals Nov. 13.

Ted Rasmussen, a Latah attorney and grass grower, prepared a lawsuit against SCAPCA in June because Skelton hadn’t ruled on grower Harold Tiede’s petition. Rasmussen is representing several growers in the SCAPCA appeals.

But when the SCAPCA board agreed to hear growers’ appeals of Skelton’s denials, Rasmussen didn’t proceed with the suit.

“I got what I wanted from them,” Rasmussen said.The industry also is taking aim at several other SCAPCA regulations including a 35,000-acre, county-wide cap on bluegrass burning.

“We’d like to see both the base acreage system and the cap removed. The industry would favor supply and demand as a cap,” said Martha Dailey, executive secretary of the grass growers’ association.

Dailey said she has “no idea” how the growers will follow up on their ad, with its promise to respond to citizens who phoned in hundreds of complaints this year about smoky skies.

The growers are beginning a private review of their practices and will discuss them at the growers association annual meeting in December, Dailey said.

In 1990, SCAPCA’s five-member board developed rules to limit - and slowly reduce - field burning because of the health hazards of smoke pollution.

But this spring, the growers convinced the Legislature to yank SCAPCA’s authority to limit their burning season to 16 days.

In March, the SCAPCA board appeared ready to ax the acreage rules. But after public outcry against grass burning at a July meeting, board members said they needed more time to decide.

In August, they voted to delay their decision and cancel a public hearing on eliminating the acreage limits and other burning curbs.

Now, the board is torn between the growers’ push for fewer regulations and increasingly vocal critics who want tougher enforcement and an eventual end to field burning.

The board wants to meet with state legislators before revisiting the subject, Skelton said.

Recent scientific studies support local regulators’ efforts to curtail grass burning and other forms of small particulate pollution.

They show that fine particles found in grass smoke and other combustion sources are a much greater health risk than previously believed.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency probably will tighten its particulate standards by 1997, under pressure of a lawsuit from the American Lung Association.

If a proposed new standard for fine smoke particles were in effect today, Spokane would flunk it during grass-burning season, said Skelton.

“I’ve told the industry that we could be in repeated violation if EPA ratchets down the standard,” Skelton said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Total grass field acreage burned

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