March 24, 1996 in City

Grass-Smoke Issue Far From Resolved

By The Spokesman-Review

It is time to acknowledge that the annual burning of grass-seed fields has an adverse effect on public health. It is also time to acknowledge that if grass-seed growing ends, new environmental problems will take the place of the smoke.

For long enough, our region’s battle over grass-field smoke has come across as a two-sided screaming match. But it’s not that simple. There are responsible, frustrated citizens on both sides.

The issue requires compromise, cooperation and ingenuity from all who live in the region. Polarization has made those qualities scarce and that’s one reason the battle has gone on so long.

Now, it’s getting worse.

Last week the Washington state Department of Ecology announced it will ban field burning by 1998 - but only in Washington. This will not reduce smoke in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene metropolitan corridor, where the greatest number of people are at risk of ill effects. The smoke the state’s ban would stop rises from southern fields and usually dissipates over lightly populated grass farming country.

Spokane-area smoke pollution comes mainly from seed growers on Idaho’s Rathdrum Prairie. Idaho’s farmer-dominated government has no desire to regulate them. So metropolitan residents lack a remedy unless the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intervenes, but Congress has that agency under seige.

Meanwhile, activists in Idaho say they’ll start harassing the Idaho farmers with lawsuits. Even if the lawsuits fail, they’ll bludgeon farmers with attorney fees and the fear of big verdicts. This is a deliberate abuse of legal process. The farmers are acting within the bounds of Idaho law, such as it is.

Bottom line? Lawyers get more business. Burning stops where it’s least harmful. Burning continues where it’s most harmful.

Wherever field burning does cease, grass seed production, an important industry, probably will cease as well. Some fields will be converted to crops such as wheat. Grass-seed production restores soil and prevents erosion by wind and water. Wheat production leads to dust storms and silt-choked rivers. Other abandoned fields will sprout housing tracts which clog rural highways, pollute the air, and contaminate and drain the aquifer, an increasingly scarce and priceless resource.

What’s needed is a new and far more aggressive effort by the growers themselves, region-wide, to limit their burning and develop markets for their troublesome straw. Together they need to find a way to stay in business while facing up to the valid concerns about public health. But there is little hope so long as government intervention creates inequity between Washington and Idaho growers, dividing the industry rather than encouraging an effective regional solution.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Webster/For the editorial board

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