The Washington Department of Ecology will decide by next fall whether to declare an end to most grass field burning in Eastern Washington.
The department’s decision means Kentucky bluegrass growers still will be able legally to burn one-third of their acreage next year - about 20,000 acres.
And it doesn’t address the torching of other crops, including tens of thousands of acres of wheat stubble, that also darkened Spokane’s skies this summer.
Clean-air activists and Spokane doctors think the agency is backsliding.
They have inundated Gov. Gary Locke with hundreds of letters, cards and e-mail messages after an Aug. 23 Spokesman-Review article that said Ecology Director Tom Fitzsimmons might not follow through on the pledge by his predecessor, Mary Riveland, to ban grass burning by 1998.
The department’s air quality chief met with the doctors and activists in Spokane last Friday.
“You’ve done a good job of writing the governor,” Joe Williams said dryly as he opened the meeting.
The department will hold hearings early next summer on field burning alternatives - a requirement of the state Clean Air Act that allows the agency to gradually phase out the burning of Kentucky bluegrass. Originally, that phase-out was supposed to be nearly complete this year.
“You feel the agency has backed off,” Williams told the clean air coalition. “But every step we take is being challenged in court. We have to be very careful.”
Fitzsimmons has asked an agricultural burning task force established by the Legislature and made up mostly of farmers to seek ways to curb all types of burning.
But burning of wheat stubble has actually increased in Eastern Washington as the bluegrass phase-out has taken effect, the officials agreed.
It was hard to tell in Spokane this summer that any burning reduction was in effect, a leading children’s lung specialist told Williams.
Dr. Michael McCarthy said his offices were full of sick children in August and September. Some had to be hospitalized, he said.
“It’s hard for me to believe this year was two-thirds less. We had many problems,” McCarthy said.
“It was a bad year,” agreed Grant Pfeifer, Ecology air quality specialist in Spokane.
Grass growers “are telling me that other farmers are burning out of spite. But we don’t have the data on that,” Pfeifer said.
Ecology has started enforcement action on nine cases of illegal burning in the Columbia Basin this summer, Pfeifer said.
“If one of our worst years in history is when we’ve mandated two-thirds less (burning), something’s wrong. There better be a good way to enforce compliance,” McCarthy said.
Ecology will hire two additional compliance staff members in the Spokane office this fall, Williams said.
Meanwhile, the industry and its critics disagree on whether no-burn alternatives exist now.
Growers are “working very hard” to find ways to grow grass without burning, said Linda Clovis, spokeswoman for the Intermountain Grass Growers Association.
“You already have alternatives,” said veterinarian Patricia Hoffman of Save Our Summers, an anti-burning group. “It’s just that they cost more and growers don’t accept them. We’ve already had six public hearings.”
“We think we are very close to resolving this, but we don’t want to stumble in the final steps,” said Tony Grover, Ecology’s new regional director.
“If we follow the process carefully, we’ll be sitting here a year from today with a decision in hand,” he said.
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