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Limits on field burning targeted

Southern Idaho farmers ask change; SAFE to fight back

Idaho officials want to modify a ban that prohibits farmers from burning their fields on weekends and holidays. They also recommend allowing burning when ozone readings are higher than current rules permit.

The changes are being proposed to help farmers in Southern Idaho, where the majority of the state’s 65,000 acres of fields are torched each year. Many Southern Idaho growers are “weekend” farmers, who must take a day off from their full-time jobs to burn crop stubble during the week, said Mary Anderson, the Department of Environmental Quality’s smoke manager program coordinator.

Current ozone rules also prohibit agricultural burning on some days that rank as good air quality days under federal standards, she said.

“It didn’t make sense that we were shutting down burning when air quality was still good,” Anderson said. “We want to take advantage of all the good burn days, when … the smoke will go straight up and you won’t see or smell it on the ground.”

But the proposed changes are opposed by SAFE, which stands for Safe Air for Everyone. The Sandpoint-based group represents about 1,600 Inland Northwest residents who have health issues that are aggravated by smoke.

In 2007, the group won a legal victory that shut down Idaho’s field burning program. Burning resumed in 2008 following a mediated agreement among SAFE, growers, the state and other stakeholders.

“We’ve been able to work pretty well under this agreement to this point, so this is a shocking turn of events,” said Patti Gora-McRavin, executive director of SAFE. She had this message for state regulators: “If you mess with this now, we will have no choice but to try to stop it through the courts or other measures.”

The mediated agreement is based on health criteria, she said. Since the agreement went into place, “we no longer have people rushing to the emergency room, and we no longer have incidence of deaths,” Gora-McRavin said.

In addition, field burning was prohibited on weekends and holidays because of its “tremendous negative impact” on North Idaho’s tourism industry, she said.

In 2011, growers burned 3,706 acres in Boundary County. In Kootenai County, the number of acres burned was 420.

Recommendations to ease field-burning rules are included in DEQ’s annual report on crop-residue burning. The report will be discussed Tuesday in Boise at a meeting of the advisory committee for the state’s agricultural burning program.

Anderson said growers are seeking to amend the existing rules. DEQ Director Curt Fransen will make the call on whether to enter into negotiated rule-making on field burning.

If the rule-making proceeds, Anderson said, the process would allow for plenty of public input. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would have to approve any changes to ensure that Idaho remains in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act.

“Our priority has always been protecting public health and air quality,” Anderson said. However, new information has emerged since the mediated agreement was signed four years ago, she said. DEQ believes the rules can be modified to better accommodate farmers while still protecting public health, she said.

Idaho’s rules prohibit agricultural burning when air pollutants exceed 75 percent of the EPA’s national ambient air quality standard. In some parts of rural Southern Idaho, background levels of ozone are close to that 75 percent, Anderson said.

Even Craters of the Moon National Monument has high background levels of ozone, she said. Plentiful sunlight, high elevations and chemicals given off by sagebrush and other native plants contribute to background ozone levels.

To help average citizens understand daily pollution levels in their communities, the EPA set up an air quality index. Under that index, air quality can still be rated good when ozone levels are elevated, but readings for particulates and other pollutants are low, Anderson said.

That’s where the recommendation to modify the rules related to ozone levels comes from, she said.

But SAFE members are concerned about relaxing standards. Some health experts already say that federal air quality standards aren’t protective enough, Gora-McRavin said. Research links worsening air quality to greater risk of strokes and heart attacks.

“If we don’t have a health-based program, why have a program?” Gora-McRavin said. “DEQ seems to be trading convenience for growers at the cost of increasing smoke exposures for the public. That’s a trade-off we can’t afford.”