BOISE – Idaho could allow field burning to resume later this year after the Environmental Protection Agency said a recent federal court ruling doesn’t prevent the state from issuing burning permits.
The state had previously said it wouldn’t issue such permits this year in light of the court ruling.
Reopening debate on the controversy is a victory for farmers who grow crops such as bluegrass seed and say burning residue is necessary for healthy yields. They have complained Idaho hasn’t done enough to protect their interests.
It’s a blow to clean-air activists who argue field burning is dangerous and hurts people’s health, especially those with respiratory ailments. Safe Air For Everyone, which is based in Sandpoint, and the American Lung Association of Idaho filed the court challenge that led to the earlier no-permit decision.
The issue has been especially contentious in North Idaho, where Rathdrum Prairie field burning has collided with a rapidly growing population and an economy that’s based largely on tourism.
On Monday, Gov. Butch Otter called for farmers and the activists to negotiate.
He demanded that activists who have waged a legal fight over grass burning suspend any pending litigation by Friday for talks to begin. Otter also said farmers should suspend any legal claims, but grass growers told the Associated Press they don’t have any pending litigation.
“If you want a solution and are committed to the ground rules we can move forward,” Otter wrote in a letter to the groups, including the Idaho Grain Growers and the Nezperce Prairie Grass Growers Association, along with Safe Air for Everyone.
Mark Warbis, a spokesman for Otter, declined to say whether the governor would allow burning permits to be issued if Safe Air for Everyone won’t suspend its court fights.
“He’s not going to go into hypotheticals,” Warbis said. “We’re hoping to find a solution that works for the long term.”
On Jan. 30, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its authorization of grass field burning in Idaho. State officials interpreted the order to mean they couldn’t issue burning permits while the EPA reconsidered Idaho’s field burning rules.
As a result, the state Agriculture Department said in February it would not issue permits this year.
But on Friday, the EPA told the state in a letter that the court’s ruling didn’t forbid Idaho from issuing burning permits while the federal regulator reconsiders the state rules, Warbis said.
Agriculture groups hailed the EPA interpretation. Burning permits, should they be issued, could come in time for fall burning, said Nathan Riggers, president of the Nezperce Prairie Grass Growers Association.
Patti Gora, executive director of Safe Air For Everyone, didn’t immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
EPA officials handling the Idaho case weren’t immediately available for comment Monday evening, said Mark McIntyre, a spokesman in Seattle.