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Grass Burning Becomes Red-Hot Issue For Agency State Department Of Ecology Caught Between Health Activists, Growers

The turmoil over grass field burning in Spokane County extends to the state Department of Ecology.

The agency’s top brass is agonizing over the controversy as they plan a March workshop and a hearing into burning alternatives.

At issue is whether regulators should be strict enforcers of environmental laws, or flexible negotiators trying to keep peace with both industry and clean-air activists.

In recent weeks, the Department of Ecology’s Spokane staff has been battered by conflicting demands. Tempers are flaring and stress is high.

Grass growers want the agency to downplay public health concerns in the hearings and keep the focus on burning alternatives. Activists want the agency to use the state Clean Air Act to ban grass burning to protect public health.

The field burning furor - along with Hanford cleanup and water rights - has made the Department of Ecology Director Mary Riveland’s short list of hottest issues.

“It’s not a jobs vs. owls thing. It’s jobs vs. people suffering, and that makes it very compelling,” Riveland said.

The behind-the-scenes contention at the Department of Ecology over field burning is the latest twist in the agency’s identity crisis.

In a political climate tough on regulators, the agency has been asked to be less confrontational as it enforces clean water, air and toxic waste laws.

That’s anathema to the department’s old-timers, who don’t like their bosses’ new directives to regulate less and negotiate more.

“Mary Riveland’s approach is the same she used when she headed the Department of Licensing - get those permits out with a smile,” one Spokane staffer grumbled.

While public polls show citizens want the environment protected, small businesses and farmers say they want the agency off their backs.

Large industries and cities continue to work well with Department of Ecology regulators, Riveland said.

“These people have worked with us for 25 years. But with small business and agriculture, it’s a whole new ballgame,” Riveland said.

The turmoil comes as agencies at all levels of government face a more hostile public.

At the Department of Ecology, confrontations over a variety of regulatory issues have gotten ugly. Staffers have been shot at. They’ve been told to travel in pairs in rural areas. They’ve faced threats at public meetings - and from powerful legislators gunning for their jobs.

Fearing for her staff’s safety after last year’s Oklahoma City bombing, Riveland ordered branch offices to remove the large green state decals from most agency cars.

One van used to clean up toxic spills in Eastern Washington “had a .22 bullet hole through George Washington’s head,” said Pete Peterson, a Spokane supervisor.

“It’s rough out there,” said George Farmer, who’s worked on water rights and solid waste permits.

The field burning issue has been one of the touchiest, according to internal agency files.

It’s evidence of the difficulty regulators have trying to balance their mandate to enforce the environmental laws with increasing pressure to be more accommodating to industry.

In January 1995, Riveland told Spokane area bluegrass growers the state had “no intention” to force them to stop burning their Eastern Washington fields.

But the issue wouldn’t go away.

The 1995 state Legislature erased the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority’s power to limit the field burning season, although the agency can still tell farmers on which specific days they can burn.

The Department of Ecology didn’t even know the bill was coming up for a vote, said Joe Williams, the agency’s top air cop in Olympia.

“The Legislature broke a basic tenet of the way air is managed in Washington” by weakening local control, Williams said.

Clean air activists went to Rep. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, who asked the agency for a full-scale review of field burning - a request it reluctantly granted.

Tensions have escalated since.

Growers have powerful allies in the Legislature, including Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton. He represents Whitman County and the southern parts of Spokane County, where most of the state’s bluegrass is grown.

“I heard from him on grass burning issues before I heard from any other legislators in Eastern Washington,” said Riveland, who’s led the Department of Ecology for three years.

Riveland’s “running scared” because she’s afraid the Legislature will abolish or cripple the department, one staffer said.

Riveland denies that, but says the Legislature’s budget cuts have been tough on her agency.

In 1995, the Republican-dominated House changed the name of the House Ecology Committee to the House Agriculture and Ecology Committee. Its chairman is Rod Chandler, R-Moses Lake, a hay farmer and orchardist.

Riveland said the committee’s new emphasis worries her. “I’m concerned that environmental issues aren’t getting the attention they merit in the House,” she said.

Last year, Chandler helped pass a bill that allows orchardists to burn pruning debris without permits previously required by the state’s Clean Air Act.

This year, Chandler blocked a hearing for a bill sponsored by Brown to tighten grass burning regulations.

Even plans for the Department of Ecology’s field burning workshop next month are locked in contentious debate. The workshop is part of a yearlong process to determine if there are viable alternatives to burning.

If the agency makes that determination, field burning could be banned - replacing SCAPCA’s proposed regulation to gradually curb the practice.

The agency is being objective as it plans the workshop, Williams said. But he’s told the Spokane staff to favor the growers if necessary.

“If there’s a slight bend to this, it ought to be slightly to the grass seed people. They are the industry under the microscope,” Williams said.

Riveland’s heard several complaints from Prince that staff in Spokane are too “activist.”

Prince called Grant Pfeifer, the chief air regulator in Eastern Washington, a “rabble rouser” for circulating a letter by Dr. Thomas Ryan of Spokane opposing the Legislature’s elimination of the field burning window last year.

“Many asthmatics (my stepdaughter included) wind up in the hospital every year when they burn the fields,” Ryan wrote Gov. Mike Lowry in April 1995.

Adding to the Spokane tensions, Williams ordered Pfeifer to exclude Pete Peterson, a 22-year air section supervisor, from any grass burning issues.

Peterson was the main liaison with grass growers until he angered Prince. Last fall, Williams conveyed a blunt message to Pfeifer.

“Mary says, ‘tell Grant to keep Pete out of it…’ Very sensitive. Prince involved,” says a Sept. 13 note from Pfeifer about his conversation with Williams.

Peterson “was trying to put farmers out of business,” Prince said.

On Jan. 19, Peterson told Pfeifer a Sept. 25 agency directive to stay out of the issue was “humiliating” and “politically motivated.”

Growers and clean air activists continue to argue about the workshop.

John Cornwall, president of the Intermountain Grass Growers Association, asked the Department of Ecology to move a health effects panel from the first day of the three-day event.

The agency agreed, shifting the health session to the last day.

Cornwall opposed the health discussion “because of his concerns the media will only cover the first day,” according to Pfeifer’s notes of his Dec. 18 telephone conversation with Cornwall.

“We thought it would be a media show. They’d discuss health effects on the first day, and we wouldn’t get our say,” said grower Karl Felgenhauer of Fairfield.

The clean-air group Save Our Summers objected, saying the main focus should be on health. Now, SOS and another environmental group won’t participate in the health panel.

“They are putting the cart before the horse by looking at (burning) alternatives before considering public health,” said Bonnie Mager of the Washington Environmental Council.

“I understand their concerns,” Pfeifer said. “They are disappointed the agency hasn’t done more.”

The Department of Ecology will lose public respect by trying to placate industry, Peterson said.

“We are going to make enemies when we do our job. We are here for the welfare of the citizens. The Clean Air Act says, take action,” he said.

Riveland said the agency isn’t ducking its responsibility.

“We have the authority under the Clean Air Act to commit to an alternative to grass burning. Meanwhile, we need to make sure all sides are heard,” she said.

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WORKSHOP The Department of Ecology workshop on grass burning is scheduled March 25, 26 and 27 at the Ag Trade Center.

This sidebar appeared with the story: WORKSHOP The Department of Ecology workshop on grass burning is scheduled March 25, 26 and 27 at the Ag Trade Center.

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