Washington state will douse most Kentucky bluegrass field burning by 1998.
In one of her last acts in the outgoing Lowry administration, Washington Department of Ecology Director Mary Riveland signed a permanent rule Tuesday to phase out field burning.
Riveland’s action ends a yearlong battle over the Ecology Department’s proposed burning phaseout.
Last year, the state’s bluegrass growers were forced to cut burning 33 percent after Riveland announced an emergency edict in March. The growers lost two legal battles to overturn it.
Spokane’s medical community and a coalition of clean air activists convinced Riveland that the annual field burning ritual is a major public health threat in the state’s second-largest city.
She invoked the Washington Clean Air Act and moved to curb field burning statewide after receiving a petition from more than 300 Spokane doctors asking her to act to protect public health.
Benefits from less smoke pollution total $8.4 million a year, while increased costs to the grass seed industry add up to $5.6 million annually, an Ecology study concluded.
The new rules will make it more expensive for farmers to grow bluegrass, but they aren’t a death knell for the industry, said a Fairfield grower and industry leader.
“The public doesn’t like the way we operate, so it’s prudent for us to look at other ways of doing this,” said John Cornwall of the Intermountain Grass Growers Association.
Further litigation over Ecology’s rule would probably be fruitless, Cornwall said. “We aren’t going to gain much in a legal battle.”
A prominent Spokane lung specialist hailed Riveland’s move this week to make the curtailment permanent.
“I’m very pleased. I’m glad she took the bull by the horns and did what is right. I think it will make a difference for a lot of people - and it will reduce my workload in the fall,” said Dr. Alan Whitehouse.
A Spokane activist also praised Riveland.
“We think it’s very courageous action on her part,” said Patricia Hoffman, a Spokane Valley veterinarian and founder of Save Our Summers.
Snuffing grass smoke won’t solve all of Spokane’s air quality problems, said a Spokane legislator who pushed Ecology to reduce field smoke.
“This is just one part of the air quality issue in Spokane. We still have a long way to go. But this is a step in the right direction,” said Sen.elect Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.
The benefits of having less smoke in the air outweigh costs to growers by nearly $3 million a year, Ecology officials said Tuesday as they released a new cost-benefit analysis.
The Washington Legislature requires such economic impact studies before new regulations are adopted.
“There is clear, credible evidence that people are affected by grass field smoke. Their losses are not only physical and emotional, but financial as well,” Riveland said.
“We also recognize that people in the growers’ community face losses while they adjust. We’re willing to work with them to find ways for (them) to prosper while protecting their neighbors’ needs for cleaner air and better health,” Riveland added.
Washington State University’s Department of Agricultural Economics conducted the study, based on interviews with 1,561 Eastern Washington and North Idaho residents.
The new regulations were adopted after public hearings and input from an Ecology advisory committee, which included growers, legislators and clean air activists.
Bluegrass growers are allowed some leeway under Ecology’s rules. The cutbacks are based either on grass fields planted as of May 1, 1996, or on what was permitted for burning in 1995.
That’s an olive branch to Columbia Basin growers, who admitted - after Riveland announced her emergency ban - that they’d actually burned up to 16,000 acres without permits in 1995.
That means there were actually nearly 60,000 acres in production statewide last year - far more than the 41,000 acres Ecology estimated.
Growers burned illegally in several counties, including Adams, Grant, Whitman and Walla Walla, according to growers on the Ecology task force.
Illegal burning isn’t prevalent in Spokane County, where for 25 years growers have obtained permits and local air quality regulators have monitored the annual burning, which totaled over 26,000 acres in 1995.
Under the new rules, farmers growing bluegrass on steep slopes also get a partial exemption. That’s because they say it’s too dangerous to operate heavy dethatching equipment on the slopes.
Dethatching removes the straw from around the plant after it’s harvested for seed. Some researchers say it’s an alternative to field burning.
No more than 5 percent of a farmer’s acreage in production as of May 1, 1996, can qualify for the steep slope exemption, according to the rule.
Growers also can trade burning permits by swapping permitted acres. But that will be discontinued if it creates too much air pollution.
Ecology also left the door open for farmers to try other field-scorching methods that don’t involve open burning.
That’s good, Cornwall said.
That would allow farmers to dethatch most of the residue and then use propane or other techniques to sanitize the ground, he said.
Field burning won’t end completely until Ecology certifies alternatives as “best management practices” for raising grass seed.
It’s too early to predict whether there’ll be a move in the Legislature to undo the rule.
“It’s being called a permanent regulation, but there’s really no such thing,” said Brown.
It’s important now to focus on minimizing the costs to the grass industry instead of wasting energy on a legislative fight, she said.
A Whitman County senator and grass industry booster doesn’t plan to try to derail the Ecology rule. Such an effort would fail, said Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton.
“I feel our chances aren’t that great. But the farmers are getting picked on because we are a minority,” Prince said.
Farmers are willing to try many new methods to reduce smoke in the air, Cornwall said.
“Farming has changed so much. In five years, we may be able to solve this,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: HEALTH VS. JOBS The “winner” in the lungs vs. livelihoods debate over grass burning is public health, according to a new economic impact study. Washington State University’s Department of Agricultural Economics conducted an economic study of the impact of the Washington Department of Ecology’s phaseout of field burning. The economic benefits of dousing most grass field burning outweigh industry costs by about $3 million a year, according to the study. Among its findings: The new burning phaseout will cost the grass seed industry $5.6 million a year in lost jobs, increased soil erosion and the “ripple effect” on the local economy. There will be $8.4 million in public benefits each year from reduced grass field burning, including avoided medical costs and increased tourism. About one-third of the estimated 60,000 acres of Eastern Washington’s bluegrass will be lost to other crops. Despite this loss, the industry will adapt to the new regulations. Now that they are in place, the Ecology Department is ready to help the industry find new farming practices, department officials said Tuesday.
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