Washington state wants to douse nearly all bluegrass field burning and approve an alternative: raking off field stubble after the seed is harvested.
“We have pressed forward aggressively to reach a solution to this important public health issue,” Department of Ecology Director Tom Fitzsimmons said Tuesday.
Small particles in grass smoke cause respiratory problems when fields are burned in late summer, Fitzsimmons said.
Ecology’s proposed rule wouldn’t become final until June, after a public hearing in Spokane. It means field burning would be cut from more than 60,000 acres statewide in 1996 to only a few thousand acres this summer.
Fitzsimmons also called on Idaho and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take similar steps to “bring further relief to all residents of the Inland Northwest.”
That’s not likely to happen, an Idaho official said.
The Idaho Legislature has specifically barred the state’s environment cops from regulating grass field burning, said Robert Wilkosz, a Department of Environmental Quality official in Boise.
About 26,000 acres were burned in Idaho last year, including 19,000 acres on the Coeur d’Alene reservation.
So far, the EPA hasn’t used its authority under the federal Clean Air Act to curb burning on Indian reservations.
Spokane and rural towns in Eastern Washington and North Idaho get a double-whammy of grass smoke each summer from fields in Washington and Idaho.
Ecology’s announcement this week starts the final chapter in a controversial, three-year burning phaseout launched by former Ecology Director Mary Riveland in 1996.
Riveland acted on a petition from more than 300 Spokane doctors, who said the annual field-burning ritual is a public health menace.
Bluegrass growers fought the phaseout in the courts and the Legislature. They said it would kill the regional seed industry.
But Ecology’s mandate to improve air quality under the state Clean Air Act has so far withstood the growers’ challenges.
In 1996 and 1997, Ecology cut field burning by two-thirds. Only 22,000 acres were burned last year.
On Tuesday, clean air activists applauded Ecology’s announcement, while a growers’ group complained it will mean economic disaster.
“It will be real difficult for bluegrass growers to survive. It will have a negative effect on the industry,” said Linda Clovis, spokeswoman for the Intermountain Grass Growers Association.
Bluegrass growers promised in the late ‘60s to cut back on burning but used their political clout to keep burning, said Spokane City Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers.
“After 30 years, it’s great to know that public health and safety take priority,” Rodgers said.
“It took a tremendous amount of courage for the Department of Ecology to do this. We are just thrilled,” said Patricia Hoffman, a Spokane Valley veterinarian and founder of Save Our Summers.
“That’s great news,” said Dr. Michael McCarthy, a Spokane children’s lung specialist who signed the 1996 petition to Ecology.
“It’s very exciting. It will make a very big difference in the health of patients with respiratory disease. I’d hope it would be a precedent for other types of agricultural burning,” McCarthy said.
The state’s Clean Air Act requires Ecology to certify an “economical and practical” alternative to burning before it can ban the practice.
Last August, Fitzsimmons caught flak from doctors and clean air activists when it appeared he might postpone a decision on the 1998 phaseout. He then came to Spokane and promised a decision by March 31.
Ecology will now hold a daylong public hearing on May 5 at the Ag Trade Center before deciding on the final ban.
The agency’s proposed alternative involves removing bluegrass straw from fields by baling and raking the stubble.
Some researchers say stubble removal is as effective as burning in stimulating seed production in the next crop.
But many growers say their yields steeply decline when fields aren’t torched after the seed harvest.
Shawn Dashiell, 17, helps his father, Paul, with the family’s bluegrass crop near Fairfield.
When the Dashiells baled off their bluegrass fields last year to comply with the state’s burning phaseout, the yields dropped, Shawn Dashiell said.
“The fields we baled put off about half as much yield as usual, if even that,” he said.
An Ecology spokeswoman said the agency has been through a “rigorous process” of reviewing industry and academic research into field burning alternatives.
“We feel very confident with it,” said Jani Gilbert, spokeswoman for Ecology’s Eastern regional office.
Area bluegrass growers weren’t part of that research review, Clovis said.
“We don’t think Ecology listens to us,” she said.
Details of the state proposal, plus hearing times and public comment deadlines, will be available within a few days, Gilbert said.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEXT FOR GRASS BURNING Questions and answers about the grass burning rule proposed by the Washington Department of Ecology: Q. When would it begin? A. If approved, this summer. Q. What about Indian reservations? A. The state regulation wouldn’t restrict burning on Indian reservation fields. Q. What about Idaho? A. The state of Idaho has no plans to curb burning. Q. What has to happen before the proposed rule takes effect in Washington? A. The state will hold a public hearing in May in Spokane. A final decision is expected in June.