Bluegrass field burning will be slashed 30 percent in Washington this year and eliminated altogether by 1998 under a state plan announced Tuesday in Spokane.
Using a powerful emergency clause to regulate this summer’s burning season, Department of Ecology Director Mary Riveland said it’s time to take bold action to protect public health.
“Grass field burning must stop. The time to act is now,” Riveland said at a press conference packed with politicians, growers and clean-air activists.
Washington’s top environmental official said her staff “agonized” over the decision in recent weeks.
Agriculture is the “heart and soul” of Spokane, but it’s clear field burning is a public health threat, Riveland said.
She credited Spokane’s lung doctors and clean-air activists for pushing Ecology into its unprecedented decision.
“Citizens have helped us be accountable,” Riveland said.
Ecology also got a push from the American Lung Association of Washington.
Yvonne Bucklin, the group’s Spokane director, notified Ecology earlier this month it might sue to force the agency to consider the health impacts of grass smoke.
“We wanted Ecology to use its authority under the state Clean Air Act to protect public health,” Bucklin said.
Riveland’s directive affects 26,405 acres of bluegrass in Spokane County, and an additional 14,500 acres in the rest of Eastern Washington.
Field burning each summer generates hundreds of tons of pollutants, predominantly tiny particles that new health studies link to increased hospital admissions and deaths from respiratory distress.
The bluegrass industry has promised to cut field burning for 30 years but has never delivered, Riveland said.
“There have been some efforts to manage smoke” by burning on days when winds blow away from cities, Riveland said, “but those efforts pale compared to other industries.”
In the same three decades, automobile emissions are down 96 percent and those from industry 90 percent. Citizens also are being required to curtail wood stove use and open burning, she said.
Spokane County growers condemned the rapid phaseout of a practice they’ve used for nearly 30 years.
Growers have little time to prepare for a 30 percent reduction, said John Cornwall, president of the Intermountain Grass Growers Association. “With such a short time period, there’ll be a drastic reduction in bluegrass,” he said.
Cornwall said burning alternatives are more expensive and far less effective than burning, which helps stimulate seed production and cleans fields of straw buildup.
Alternatives include mechanically raking and flailing fields to dethatch the straw and let sunlight penetrate the crown of the plant to encourage seed growth.
Environmentalists praised Riveland, but cautioned their fight isn’t over.
“The Clean Air Act is meaningless without Ecology enforcing it. We are extremely pleased by this, ” said Bonnie Mager, the Washington Environmental Council’s Spokane director.
“We are fully in support of Ecology, but we aren’t planning to go away,” said Patricia Hoffman, founder of Save Our Summers, a grassroots group opposed to field burning.
“Since 1969, the industry has imposed its own political solutions” whenever regulators have tried to cut field burning, she said.
Riveland said the industry “violated the trust” of Spokane last year, when growers backed a bill in the Legislature that yanked the power of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority to limit the field burning season.
The Legislature didn’t hear from Spokane’s medical community when it passed the bill, Riveland said.
That law, which still gives SCAPCA authority to tell growers on which days they can burn, is still in effect, said Grant Pfeifer of Ecology’s Spokane office.
But Riveland’s directive means SCAPCA must write a new Spokane County field burning rule that’s at least as strict as Ecology’s new statewide mandate.
For 1996, that means at least a 30 percent reduction in field burning in Spokane County.
Spokane County Commissioner John Roskelley, who on Monday offered a field burning compromise that would include Idaho’s Rathdrum Prairie in smoke-reduction efforts, said he had mixed feelings about the announcement.
“I’m happy for the people of Spokane County. This will get the majority of smoke out of the air,” Roskelley said.
But a three-year burning phaseout may not give farmers enough time to adopt alternatives, he said. And without addressing bluegrass burning on the Rathdrum Prairie, smoke still will waft into Spokane from Idaho, he said.
“Unless Ecology can work with Idaho, we’re still going to have smoke in the air,” Roskelley said.
Ecology’s strong stance on field burning could run into rough political shoals, depending on the November elections.
Riveland was appointed by Gov. Mike Lowry, now a lame duck after announcing he’ll not seek re-election this fall.
A new governor could mean a new Ecology director. But Riveland has said she has no plans to step down, and could keep her job if a Democrat is elected governor.
Ecology used an emergency clause in the state’s administrative procedures act to cut field burning this year. The agency declared an emergency because the summer burning season is just six months away and there isn’t time to go through the normal rule-making process.
Next year, the agency will have to hold public hearings before enacting the next 30 percent cut.
Citizens will have to keep pushing for the phaseout, Mager said. “They’ll have to show their support for Ecology. It’s not easy for them to take such strong action.”
The decision makes next week’s symposium into burning alternatives even more important, said Ecology’s Pfeifer.
The symposium is Monday through Wednesday at the Spokane Ag Trade Center.
“The debate has now shifted away from burning to what’s a viable nonburning approach,” Pfeifer said.
In response to requests from growers, Ecology will do an economic analysis of no-burn options, Pfeifer said.
Under the state Clean Air Act, field burning can’t be phased out entirely until Ecology approves a noburn alternative.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic: Grass seed field burning reductions
MEMO: See related story under the headline: Industry cites threat to land values, jobs