Bolstered by Washington’s decision to ban grass field burning, North Idaho activists are plotting a new strategy to clear the air in their state as well.
They plan to mount an air and land assault during the Rathdrum Prairie field burning season this summer to monitor where the smoke blows.
Using private aircraft, weather balloons, a meteorologist and observers with video cameras, they’ll track smoke plumes from farmers’ fields, said attorney Harvey Richman of Coeur d’Alene.
Then they’ll sue.
“We intend to seek punitive damages against the individual farmer,” said Richman, attorney for the Clean Air Coalition, a grass-roots group with 300 members in the Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint area.
“We’ll be able to confirm that Farmer A’s smoke is hitting Homeowner B,” he said.
The coalition has tried unsuccessfully for eight years to douse field burning in Idaho.
It’s unlikely they’ll prevail this time either, said Rep. Wayne Meyer, a Rathdrum Prairie bluegrass grower and a Republican state legislator.
“I’ve been sitting here wondering what they were going to do next. I am confident we can prevail in the courts. We have the right to farm in the state of Idaho,” Meyer said.
Earlier this week, Meyer rejected an overture by Spokane County Commissioner John Roskelley to halt burning on Rathdrum Prairie in exchange for subsidies for growing bluegrass without burning.
“We aren’t interested in Roskelley. Washington isn’t going to tell Idaho what to do,” Meyer said.
Idaho’s “right to farm” law bars nuisance suits against farmers, but it doesn’t bar other legal action, Richman said. A nuisance suit alleges farm activity creates a nuisance to neighbors.
Richman plans a cluster of suits against individual farmers for battery, trespass and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress on people downwind.
“You punch me in the nose, that’s a battery. You release smoke and strike me in the nose, it’s the same thing,” he said.
The Clean Air Coalition will “have at the ready doctors who’ll be examining people. Most of the injuries will be pulmonary and visual,” Richman says.
The Idaho activists are encouraged by the comments of Spokane lung doctors who recently began speaking out against burning, said Fields Cobb of the Clean Air Coalition.
“We are going to be intensifying our efforts due to the united front of the Spokane doctors, ” he said.
The activists are now raising money to pay Richman’s legal fee, said Scott Hancock of Hope, a building contractor and the coalition’s legal chairman.
Richman said Idaho legislators and air quality regulators are ignoring the health impacts of field burning.
“Our state air people haven’t got the muscle or the gumption to do what Washington (state) had the power, right and obligation to do,” Richman said.
Idaho Department of Environmental Quality officials in Coeur d’Alene were unavailable for comment Wednesday, a receptionist said.
Richman said he expects to lose some of his new lawsuits. Even winning one would set a major precedent, he said.
“It’ll only take one or two $500,000 punitive damage awards. Insurance companies will drop those farmers like a hot burning field,” Richman said.
Field burning is no longer acceptable now that the Spokane, Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint areas have grown dramatically, Richman said.
“You just can’t do this anymore,” he said. “The population has changed, and so must the farming.”