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Burning Casts Shadow Over Summer’s End

Sun., Sept. 17, 1995

What price do you put on the dazzling brilliance of a hot September day?

What is the value of a deep blue sky? Or a glorious gust of air edged with the slight crisp bite of autumn?

A plugged nickel if you’re an opportunistic grass seed farmer. These greed-driven folks obviously don’t give a damn about such aesthetic concerns.

Each year at this time, grass farmers crudely set ablaze the stubble on their fields, sprouting gigantic mushroom clouds of thick smoke and ash.

It’s a cheap method, tried and true. The flames supposedly shock the Kentucky bluegrass plants, which, in turn, increases next year’s yield.

We breathing humans are the ones really shocked.

Shocked seeing our last best days of summer turned hazy and brown.

Shocked by the scorched smell that lingers in the air. Shocked to see the sun bloated behind a sooty veil.

Last spring, the Washington Legislature added insult to our shock by deregulating grass burning. No longer does the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority hold sway over the farmers.

Gov. Mike Lowry, who signed the bill to the salute of growers, said the Legislature “wanted to give more flexibility to farmers.”

You can give a fox more flexibility if you leave open the chicken coop door.

Affluent seed kings of North Idaho and Eastern Washington try to sell themselves as poor, humble farmers who continually are bruised by the big bad press.

They babble on about how hard they try to burn when breezes are blowing away from urban areas.

It’s a load of fertilizer. It took years of pressure from an enraged public to make these self-absorbed growers give any thought about who they might be gassing.

Left alone, they’d indiscriminately torch away as they did before the hue and cry got hotter than their stubble.

It’s time to ban field burning. Period.

Ever-shifting wind patterns are harder to predict than a turncoat governor. If you haven’t noticed, Spokane’s air lately has been as gritty as an L.A. skyline.

No wonder doctors see a sharp rise in lung problems when the smoke rolls in.

I once lived on the Rathdrum Prairie and watched the ritual burning with sick amazement.

I’ve seen the haze thick enough to blanket Lake Coeur d’Alene like a fog.

I’ve interviewed asthmatics and emphysema sufferers whose lives become hell on Earth thanks to field burning. Area high school athletes complain that it’s harder to breathe during afternoon workouts on burn days.

A respiratory specialist told me one of his patients died because of a particularly choking day.

Yet the grass seed industry remains stubbornly callous about the effects of its smoke.

If the bad air bothers you, wear a mask, says John Cornwall, president of the 450-member Intermountain Grass Growers’ Association.

“This smoke intrusion into Spokane,” he adds, “isn’t going to hurt anybody.”

It’s amazing how this small arrogant cabal of monied grass moguls is allowed to light up year after year.

No factory could get away with such wholesale pollution. Lumber mills can’t. Mining operations are heavily regulated.

But these backward farmers still do business as if it were the Dark Ages. Come to think of it, when their plumes start billowing it sure enough is the Dark Ages.

It could get darker, too. A huge demand in Asian markets has the sultans of seed licking their chops with fat expectations.

Grass growers claim they would embrace less polluting alternatives to field burning. But the other methods, they always point out, are too darned expensive or ineffective or something.

I’ll lay odds these firebugs never come up with anything quite as much fun and as cheap as striking a match.

, DataTimes

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