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EPA wants feedback on field-burning rule

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is calling for public comments on a proposed rule change to allow Idaho to bring back field burning under a new regulatory system – a move that could speed the approval process, allowing burning to resume as soon as the end of this summer.

No field burning has been allowed in Idaho, outside of tribal reservations, since a federal court overturned Idaho’s previous regulatory system in January 2007 as a violation of the federal Clean Air Act. Since then, clean air advocates, farmers and the state reached a mediated settlement calling for burning to return if Idaho moves to a new regulatory system that makes public health a priority.

The EPA proposes approving the state plan and will take public comments through May 29.

Normally it takes about three years for a state to propose and win approval for a new state implementation plan for compliance with the Clean Air Act. Idaho requested an expedited process, and the EPA agreed.

The rule change proposed by the federal agency matches Idaho’s proposed changes in its state implementation plan. The EPA’s decision to propose the rule change also indicates it’s likely to approve Idaho’s plan, which is still being developed.

“The fact that we did propose approval does indicate that we believe that this proposal meets the requirements of the Clean Air Act,” said Donna Deneen, an environmental engineer in the EPA’s Seattle office.

Under the proposed rule change, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality must give advance approval for any field burning, and before it does so, it must consider the existing air quality in the area, the expected emissions from the proposed burn, the proximity of the proposed burn to other burns, and the proximity to sensitive populations or areas like public roadways and airports. The DEQ also must notify the public in advance about the date of the burn, location, acreage and crop type.

Under Idaho’s previous system, which the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned, burn locations were kept secret and agricultural field-burning was regulated only by the state Department of Agriculture.

Safe Air For Everyone, an organization started by Sandpoint-area physicians concerned about the impact of field smoke on their respiratory patients, sued over Idaho’s previous field-burning program. The resulting decision halted all field-burning in the state last year, except on Indian reservations, which weren’t affected by the federal court decision. Idaho lawmakers fought increased regulation of field burning for years but this year overwhelmingly approved the new regulatory system.