Some Eastern Washington farmers torch thousands of acres of Kentucky bluegrass each year without bothering to get the permits state law requires.
Farmers are burning illegally in several rural counties, including Adams, Grant, Whitman and Walla Walla, according to state regulators.
“There’s been no enforcement at all in parts of Eastern Washington,” said Pat Maguire of the state Department of Ecology.
As many as 16,000 acres may have been burned annually without permits in recent years in violation of the state Clean Air Act, according to a new estimate. That’s nearly 40 percent of the acreage burned legally each year.
An anti-government mood and a lack of state inspectors - just two between the Cascades and the Idaho border - contribute to the problem.
Illegal burning isn’t prevalent in Spokane County, where for 25 years growers have cooperated and local air quality cops have kept a close eye on the annual burning, which now totals over 26,000 acres.
Grass growers say they must burn their fields after harvest to increase seed production and control weeds and pests.
Ecology officials have long suspected some growers flout the law. So have clean air activists, who are suspicious of large clouds of smoke coming from the Columbia Basin during field burning season in late summer.
But the scope of the problem is only emerging in the wake of Ecology Director Mary Riveland’s March 19 edict to douse field burning statewide over the next three years.
Riveland used her emergency powers to protect public health, based on new information from Spokane doctors that field burning harms their patients.
Her order to cut acres burned by 33 percent this year, the first year of the field burning cuts, was based on 41,000 acres of bluegrass fields permitted for burning statewide during the 1995 season. All farmers will have to cut burning equally.
But that acreage number is inaccurate, say industry officials on a new Ecology task force to implement Riveland’s order.
There actually are about 57,000 acres of bluegrass in production in Washington state, Steve Stilson of Dye Seed Ranch, a seed processor in Pomeroy, Wash., told the group on May 24.
Seed companies keep close tabs on acres in production because that’s the source of their revenue.
The revelation shocked the task force, said Grant Pfeifer, Ecology’s top air quality official in Eastern Washington.
“There was a sense of a real violation of trust,” Pfeifer said.
The new acreage figures show grass growers have not been honest about how much smoke they put into the air, a Spokane activist said.
“This industry has lost its credibility,” said Cherie Rogers, a member of the Spokane City Plan Commission and Save Our Summers, a group that supports a field burning ban.
Whitman County grower Art Schultheis told the task force some farmers refuse to pay their permit fees because they distrust Ecology.
But Dennis Hanson of Dye Seed Ranch said he doubts that feeling is widespread. He blames Ecology for the problem.
“There hasn’t been a great effort on the growers’ part to purposely fail to get permits. But there’s a good deal of confusion in the permit system,” Hanson said.
The Intermountain Grass Growers Association has told growers in the Spokane area they need to get permits, Hanson said. But the group’s efforts don’t extend into the Columbia Basin.
“You are going to have some guys who are just going to go against the system,” he said.
Ron Krug of Connell, a Columbia Basin grower who sits on the Ecology committee, declined to comment on any illegal burning in his area.
Despite these problems, Ecology’s offered an olive branch to the farmers who’ve been violating the law.
The agency is allowing the 1996 reductions to be based either on permitted acres burned in 1995, or on acres currently in production.
Spokane clean air groups say it’s not right to reward growers who haven’t played by the rules. They’d like to see unpermitted acres eliminated, forcing the scofflaws out.
“Ecology first said it would base its rule only on permitted acres, and then they changed their mind,” said veterinarian Patricia Hoffman of Save Our Summers, a member of the Ecology task force.
“We could have said if you don’t have a permit, you’re out of luck,” Pfeifer said.
But Riveland’s order is very aggressive and will get the same result, he said.
“If a person burned 600 acres last year, this year they can burn 400. Reducing smoke relative to 1995 levels is our goal,” Pfeifer said.
Permit fees help pay for fire monitoring and for a state research fund to seek alternatives to field burning. Farmers who don’t pay for permits aren’t contributing to the research fund.
Ecology may still fine the worst violators. The Clean Air Act allows fines up to $10,000 a day for each violation.
“We aren’t going to spell out ahead of time what we’re going to do. We try to treat each enforcement situation on a case-by-case basis,” Pfeifer said.
Ecology will do some sleuthing to see where the major violations have occurred.
“Over the next year, we’ll be out in the field for the first time checking to see who’s permitted,” Maguire said.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: MANY VIOLATORS An estimated 16,000 acres may have been illegally burned every year, nearly 40 percent of the acreage burned legally.