Spokane County Commissioner John Roskelley is trying for a Solomon-like solution to the bitter debate over bluegrass field burning.
On Monday, Roskelley invited seed growers and clean air activists to hammer out a regional compromise aimed at reducing grass smoke in Washington and Idaho this summer.
His challenge to the industry: Convince growers in north Spokane County and on North Idaho’s Rathdrum Prairie to snuff field burning in exchange for subsidies to cover the added expense of growing seed without burning.
His pitch to clean air activists: Stop pushing for a countywide burning ban and focus on the worst of the smoke pollution problems in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene corridor.
Roskelley’s proposal is “a bold, imaginative proposal that’s definitely worth considering,” said Eric Skelton, Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority director.
It does little good to impose only a Spokane County solution when the smoke problem is regional, Roskelley said.
“I’m looking to clean up the Spokane airshed as soon as possible. If you don’t stop Rathdrum Prairie burning, you’re not going to solve a thing,” he said.
The Spokane airshed - an area dependent on a single air mass and affected by the same sources of air pollution - stretches from Spokane to Coeur d’Alene and north to Bonners Ferry, Idaho, according to a Geographical Information Services map Roskelley brought to the meeting.
Smoke from 2,000 acres of bluegrass fields in north Spokane County and 7,000 acres on Rathdrum Prairie is most likely to foul Spokane’s air and spread a hazy cloud over lakes and resorts, he said.
The largest area of grass fields, 23,000 acres in southern Spokane County, is torched only when winds are blowing south, away from the metropolitan area.
Under Roskelley’s proposal, farmers who burn in southern Spokane County would not be subject to new rules curtailing burning - unless their smoke intrudes into Spokane.
Smoke from those southern fields does drift into Spokane on occasion, particularly when a lot of acres are burned at once, Skelton said.
If that happened under Roskelley’s proposal, the growers’ burnable acreage would be cut 20 percent.
Much of the smoke from the southern part of the county wafts into the small towns of the Palouse, Roskelley said.
Clean air activists didn’t like that part of the proposal.
There are 70,000 people in Whitman and Latah counties, including 45,000 in the Pullman-Moscow area, said veterinarian Patricia Hoffman of Save Our Summers.
“That’s a large group to essentially target,” Hoffman said.
Growers also were skeptical.
“We may be able to sell this to our north Spokane people, but I’d probably get shot proposing that in Idaho,” said John Cornwall, Intermountain Grass Growers Association president.
Idaho has much stronger “right to farm” laws than Washington, Cornwall said.
“If I told them, your airshed is part of our airshed and you have to stop burning, they (might) drop out of IGGA,” Cornwall said.
But by the end of the meeting, Cornwall said industry leaders would evaluate the economics of the proposal and talk to Idaho growers.
Wayne Meyer, a Rathdrum bluegrass farmer and Idaho legislator, dismissed the proposal during an interview Monday. He said Washington rules shouldn’t influence what Idaho growers do.
Under the plan, growers in south Spokane County would subsidize a seed price in the no-burn areas that helps cover the additional costs of raising seed without burning. Some public money might also be involved, although Roskelley gave no specifics.
“I’m not saying the proposal doesn’t have merit, or that the Idaho growers wouldn’t accept it,” Cornwall said.
But participants had more questions than answers. Who’d pay the subsidies? What if some but not all of the Idaho growers went along? Can Spokane County and Idaho officials cooperate? Would the proposal violate Washington law by selectively enforcing the Clean Air Act?
“How do we tell an asthmatic in southern Spokane County that we aren’t going to protect him?” asked Tim Connor of Save Our Summers.
Roskelley’s proposal comes just two weeks before SCAPCA’s board is scheduled to decide the fine print of a proposed seven-year phasedown of field burning. Roskelley sits on the five-member board.
If the growers and activists support Roskelley’s idea, it could be the centerpiece of the new regulations SCAPCA will take to public hearings later this year.
If the two sides can’t support his plan, he’ll drop it, Roskelley said.
The state Department of Ecology also is about to start a process that could ultimately ban bluegrass burning statewide.
On Monday, Ecology opens three days of workshops in Spokane to determine whether there’s a viable alternative to field burning. If there is, Ecology has authority under the state Clean Air Act to phase out the practice.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Possible compromise?