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Idaho halts field burning

BOISE – Farmers on the Rathdrum Prairie won’t be torching their fields this summer.

The state of Idaho announced Thursday that it will issue no field-burning permits this year due to a recent federal appeals court decision. That means no field burning can occur legally in Idaho except on the state’s five Indian reservations, which weren’t covered by the federal court decision.

Rathdrum grass seed farmer Wayne Meyer, a former state legislator, said he wasn’t surprised.

“Three days after the ruling came out I listed 300 acres for sale – and I’ve already got two offers from developers,” he said. “It’s not what I wanted to do, but I don’t have any other choice.”

Meyer said, “For 2007 we’re fine, but for 2008 there won’t be any grass seed on the Rathdrum Prairie.”

Farmers burn their grass seed fields each year to produce another crop without replanting. Meyer said without burning, yields drop 75 percent.

“With the current input costs, I would lose money big-time farming it,” he said. “Say an average yield is 800 pounds – you only get 200 pounds and you’ve got more input cost, you’re going to lose over 200 bucks an acre.”

Patti Gora, executive director of Safe Air For Everyone, a Sandpoint group formed by area physicians to oppose field burning on public health grounds, welcomed the state’s decision. The group opposes field burning because of the impact of the smoke on area residents with respiratory problems.

“When we look back on the history of this issue, there are lives that could have been saved,” Gora said. “I’m glad that the governor’s office is finally recognizing the importance of this decision and acting appropriately.”

Growers who burn this year could be sued for violating the Clean Air Act and “could face enforcement under state law,” said Toni Hardesty, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality.

On Jan. 30, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that field burning has been illegal in Idaho under federal law since 1993. That’s because Idaho’s plan for implementing the federal Clean Air Act permitted agricultural field burning when it was written in 1972 but deleted that section in amendments in 1993.

The state submitted, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved, plan amendments in 2005 to clearly legalize and regulate field burning. But the decision was challenged in court by Safe Air For Everyone and the American Lung Association of Idaho under Clean Air Act rules that forbid revised state plans from permitting increased pollution.

The state argued that field burning had been legal in Idaho all along, but the court disagreed and ruled in favor of the two clean air groups.

Celia Gould, director of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, said, “As a result of this decision, ISDA will be approving no requests for crop-residue burning.”

The Idaho attorney general’s office is reviewing the court decision, and the DEQ is consulting with the EPA about options. But a news release from Gov. Butch Otter’s office on Thursday said, “It is unlikely that any rule clarifying whether crop-residue burning violates the Clean Air Act can be implemented before this year’s burn season.”

Meyer said he wasn’t surprised. “After serving in the Legislature and dealing with the agencies and having an understanding of the processes they go through, I am not surprised, nope.

“There was no way that DEQ was going to get a new state implementation plan put together, submitted to EPA, EPA go out with an advertisement and go through the public hearing process and all – there’s not enough time left before the burn season.”