Farmland Becomes Battleground Activist Says Health Left Out Of Equation

From For the record (January 30, 1996): Veterinarian Patricia Hoffman was divorced in 1983. A Monday story incorrectly said the clean-air activist was recently divorced.

The bluegrass industry thought it got what it wanted when the Washington Legislature deregulated field burning last year.

Not entirely. The growers also got Patricia Hoffman.

The 47-year-old Spokane Valley veterinarian was furious about the growers’ political coup.

“It was the final straw,” Hoffman says.

Last spring, she founded a grass-roots citizens group, Save Our Summers, to fight for a ban on grass field burning.

SOS is doing what growers have done for years: work the controversial issue year-round, not just during the late-summer field burning season when the public complains to local air agencies.

SOS has a 1,000-person mailing list and a board that includes a man with emphysema and a mother with asthmatic kids.

“We want the state Department of Ecology to live up to its mandate to protect air quality for the most vulnerable of us,” Hoffman says.

When she moved to Spokane in 1980, Hoffman’s veterinary practice took up all her time.

But she was bothered by the grass smoke that engulfed her Valley home each summer.

“The growers kept saying, ‘We have a right to burn.’ I wanted to know who gave them this right? I kept thinking someone would address this.”

After a particularly smoky summer in 1989, Hoffman complained to the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority.

SCAPCA officials assured her they were working with growers to curtail smoke pollution.

“There was a public perception that things were being done. There was a grass summit to look for compromises. But then the growers went to Olympia and got themselves completely deregulated,” she says.

After a recent divorce, Hoffman closed her vet business. Now she’s a full-time activist.

She launched SOS by going through air agency complaint files in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene. She found the names of hundreds of people who’d called to complain about health problems during the burning season.

She started to call them - more than 1,000 in all.

“I discovered the amount of suffering was unbelievable. Nobody was talking about the mother who has to take her child to the emergency room in the middle of the night,” Hoffman says.

So far, the debate’s been cast in economic terms: Jobs and profits in the grass seed industry vs. a few weeks of pollution each year.

That’s a false equation, Hoffman argues.

She carries a picture of Alexandria Heisel, a Post Falls 3-year-old with cystic fibrosis.

Alexandria’s doctor, Michael McCarthy of Spokane, ordered the little girl to Deaconess Medical Center last September because the smoke aggravated her disease. The Heisels got a $25,000 bill for her care.

“The grass industry doesn’t want to talk about her - and about the others who suffer and pay each year,” Hoffman says.

Hoffman uses her science background to research the health impacts. She’s also working with local politicians.

Rep. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, is sponsoring a bill that would restore SCAPCA’s powers to limit the grass burning season - what the Legislature took away last year.

Last Friday, Rep. Jean Silver, R-Spokane, said she doesn’t support Brown’s bill because it’s “anti-farmer.” She’s working with a grass industry lobbyist on a rival bill.

Hoffman also is in contact with physicians who are beginning to speak out about the health risks of grass smoke.

No other industry is allowed to use the public’s air with impunity, and it’s time for field burning to end, Hoffman says.

“Why can farmers get away with this?”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

Tags: dispute

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