Alexandria Heisel is only 4 years old, but the Post Falls girl could be the one to slay grass field burning in North Idaho.
Heisel has cystic fibrosis and asthma, conditions that are aggravated by smoke rising from the annual torching of blue grass fields.
On Monday, Heisel and her parents, Jim and Trina Heisel, filed a complaint in U.S. District Court seeking a ban on the field burning.
“If someone needs to be shoved to adopt some alternatives to the burning then we are willing to do the shoving on behalf of our child,” said Jim Heisel. “This has been pushed on the back burner and we decided to wake up some people. We know from personal experience the grass smoke is bad for our kid.”
Alexandria Heisel has been hospitalized numerous times after her respiratory condition worsened during the summer grass burning. The girl is unable to go outside when the fields are torched and the family left their home for 45 days this year to escape the smoke.
The complaint was leveled against Kootenai County and the commissioners. The Heisels’ attorney, Harvey Richman, said commissioners have failed to protect residents with a law that phases out or bans the burning.
When farmers burn, the young girl is prevented from using public parks, traveling on public streets or playing in her own yard because the smoke endangers her life, he said.
“Alex has been segregated, because of her disability, from the rest of the Kootenai County community,” Richman said. “(She) is precluded from enjoying any and all public accommodations enjoyed by other citizens.”
The complaint is based on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because of Alexandria Heisel’s disease, she is disabled and is being discriminated against, Richman said.
The complaint was no surprise to Kootenai County commissioners. Richman and the Heisels had talked with commissioners for months. They requested a law to phase out grass field burning and said a complaint would be filed if nothing was done.
“We gave them a date and that date has come and gone and they have not addressed the issue,” Richman said. “This is not a shock to them.”
Commissioner Dick Panabaker said the county did meet with Richman but decided the issue was not within their authority.
“There are government agencies in the air quality business who we feel should address it,” Panabaker said. “We also feel this is something that needs to be taken care of at the state level not the county level.”
The Intermountain Grass Growers are skeptical of the complaint. Spokeswoman Linda Clovis said it only targets field burning while the major air pollutant is wood smoke.
“To ask for an ordinance that limits it to one type of smoke seems unreasonable,” she said. “It seems to be laying the blame on one group and it isn’t going to cure the problem.”
North Idaho’s grass growers have been under fire all summer from clean air activists. A Sandpoint-based group, the Clean Air Coalition, hired a meteorologist to track field smoke and offered to help residents affected by it sue farmers.
Richman also is the attorney for the coalition and said the group and the Heisels simply want a reasonable plan to stop the smoke.
The state of Washington already adopted a plan to phase out field burning by 1998. Residents and medical professionals there all pushed for the ban, saying the smoke poses a health hazard.
“There is only one plaintiff in this case,” Richman said. “But there are others with similar ailments, lung disease and cardiac problems who are ripe to be plaintiffs.”
He expects to file other complaints against individual grass growers.
The Heisels’ complaint does have some precedence. A judge ordered the city of Mallard, Iowa, last year to limit open burning. Smoke from the burning forced a child with heart and lung disease to leave the area to avoid becoming ill.
The judge ruled she was wrongly being segregated from the community because of her disability. Richman hopes a judge will apply the same logic in North Idaho.
“I think this is the first step in the battle to end grass burning as a common practice here,” Richman said.