BOISE – As North Idaho’s field burning season kicks off, the Environmental Protection Agency has asked Idaho to give the public more details on where field burning will take place each day – but the state Department of Agriculture has decided to give fewer.
Callers to the state’s smoke hotline recording Tuesday were informed simply that burning was approved that day in Benewah and Latah counties. The estimated number of acres to be burned in each county has been removed from a state Web site, though times for a burn window, such as from 1 to 4 p.m., still are posted.
“We have found that posting the amounts of acreage online doesn’t help, primarily because conditions change,” said Wayne Hoffman, spokesman for the department.
The department also is citing a public records law exemption enacted in 1992 that classifies the location of seed crop fields as a “trade secret.”
“That is what the statute says, and so far we have not been given a reason to believe the law ought to be amended,” Hoffman said. “We’re trying to balance what the law says with the public’s need to know about where a burn is taking place, and so far we think we’ve struck that balance.”
Field burning opponents disagree.
“We need to know exactly where burns are happening, exactly what time and how many acres,” said Patti Gora, executive director of Safe Air For Everyone. “The Legislature has already immunized farmers from being held accountable for any harm they do to people. Isn’t it the only decent thing left to do, to tell people where these burns are going to happen so they can get out of the way?”
State lawmakers passed a law in 2002 preventing farmers from being sued for nuisance or trespass over the smoke from their field burning, as long as they follow state smoke management rules. The law was challenged, but the Idaho Supreme Court upheld it.
Gora’s group, which was started by North Idaho physicians concerned about the effects of smoke on their patients with breathing problems, often hears from people who are afraid to drive to medical appointments or who are uncertain if they should leave their homes because of field burning.
The idea that the location of state-approved field burns is a trade secret is “malarkey,” Gora said. “It just doesn’t pass the smell test.”
The public records exemption was enacted a decade before the department took on the smoke-management program, and was proposed by southern Idaho seed-crop growers who were concerned that when they submitted crop samples to a state lab for disease testing, competitors might be able to find out what varieties they were developing by requesting public records. In addition to field locations, the law exempts the names and addresses of seed crop growers, varieties and acreage by variety.
The bill’s statement of purpose says it was intended to exempt “proprietary information contained in the forms generated by seed testing labs.”
EPA Acting Regional Administrator Ron Kreizenbeck, in a Feb. 15 letter to state Agriculture Director Pat Takasugi evaluating last year’s burn season, praised the state for developing a Web site and televised burn forecasts. “However,” he wrote, “additional improvements are needed to provide more detail on the location of daily agricultural burning activities. This information will reduce the public’s uncertainty about burning activities and provide more useful information so people impacted by smoke may take important precautionary measures.”
Kreizenbeck also recommended a series of public workshops on ways to improve communication and notification, but the department declined to follow that recommendation.
“We believe we have an ongoing dialogue taking place with the public regarding the smoke management program,” Hoffman said, including calls that come in to a complaint hotline. “We’ve used the public comments we’ve received to improve the program.”
The EPA, in its letter, also urged the state to require flaggers on roads near burns to avoid smoke-caused accidents like one that killed an eastern Idaho man last year; to study what went wrong when pollution levels soared during burns near Grangeville and Moscow last year; and to put more emphasis on finding alternatives to field burning.
“EPA continues to have concerns with smoke from agricultural burning and its impact on public health, welfare and the environment,” Kreizenbeck wrote.
Hoffman said the state intends to notify the public when fields will be burned, and if people need more detail on the location of burns, they can call the complaint hotline and ask. “We’ll tell them, ‘There’s a burn taking place north of Moscow’ or ‘There’s a burn taking place in southern Benewah County,’ ” he said. “We have no problem providing general and pretty useful information on where a burn is taking place. Obviously, we can’t provide the exact address because of the exclusion in the public records law.”
Though it originally was proposed by seed crop growers, the department helped write the 1992 law that created the exemption. The department proposes various amendments and legislation every legislative session.
Doug Cole, air program coordinator for the EPA in Boise, said the department could have proposed amending the law this year after receiving the EPA’s letter. “I don’t know why they didn’t,” he said. “We obviously think that it’s important to provide information to the public on locations and areas. … Clearly it’s something that we’d like to see happen, and that’s why we suggested that.”