BOISE – Field burning could resume in Idaho as soon as this summer under an agreement announced Friday among the state, growers and a clean-air group.
Safe Air For Everyone, an organization started by Sandpoint-area physicians concerned about the effects of field smoke on their respiratory patients, sued over the state’s previous field-burning program and won, and most field burning was halted last year. The exception was burning on Indian reservations, which weren’t affected by the federal court decision.
Before that, Sandpoint-area residents complained that smoke from the annual late-summer burning of bluegrass fields on Rathdrum Prairie was inundating their area and causing serious health problems. At least two asthma sufferers’ deaths were linked to the smoke.
“It was always our position that it’s better to come to the table and get people talking, and try to work out a reasonable agreement,” said Patti Gora, executive director of SAFE. “We’ve tried to do that since 2001.”
Under the agreement, mediated by Duke University professor Francis McGovern, Idaho will transfer regulation of field burning from the state Agriculture Department back to the state Department of Environmental Quality.
The state also will:
“Launch a statewide smoke-management program that makes public health a priority and cuts off burning if air pollution levels exceed or are expected to exceed 75 percent of standards.
“Change the practice of keeping field burn locations secret, and instead make information about the burns widely available.
“Put more state resources into analyzing the effects on air quality.
“This is a significant accomplishment that will meet farmers’ needs and protect public health and the environment,” said Toni Hardesty, DEQ director.
Matt Gellings, president of Idaho Grain Producers, said growers hope the agreement’s provisions can be met in time for field burning to resume this summer.
“The details of the agreement still have to be worked out, but we feel confident that will happen,” he said.
The state needs to win approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of a new Clean Air Act implementation plan, Agriculture Director Celia Gould said. That process can take as long as three years. But she said her department and DEQ will work to accomplish that as soon as possible.
Idaho had no field burning last summer, other than on Indian reservations, after the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned Idaho’s field-burning program in January 2007. The court victory for SAFE followed years of battles in court and in the state Legislature, where lawmakers moved aggressively to protect farmers.
After an earlier lawsuit resulted in a large settlement paid by farmers to respiratory patients in the region, Idaho lawmakers outlawed “nuisance” lawsuits over smoke from field burning.
As part of the new agreement, Idaho agreed to step up monitoring and conduct exposure studies to measure the effect of field smoke on residents.
Gora said her group will work with the state and growers to develop the required programs.
“It’s a very ambitious timeline and very tight,” she said. “We’re all going to work together.”