Legislation loosening the air quality standards for when field burning will be allowed in Idaho passed the Senate today on a 29-5 vote, and now moves to the House side. The change affects only ozone, not particulate pollution, the type of pollution that field-burning creates. But under Idaho’s current laws – established in the wake of a lawsuit settlement in 2008 – Idaho agreed to set standards for the days it allows field-burning that don’t exceed 75 percent of any federal air quality standard, for any pollutant. Now, the federal government has tightened its ozone standard. If Idaho made no change, that’d mean a reduction in potential burn days for farmers.
Sen. Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs, told the Senate, “If we did nothing, the number of burn days in Idaho would decline by a third, maybe a half.”
Senate Minority Leader Michele Stennett, D-Ketchum, noted that the current rules for field burning in Idaho were crafted by all sides with the aim of protecting public health, pursuant to the lawsuit settlement. “Could you explain to me how this has changed?” she asked Harris.
He responded, “DEQ has done studies of the last 10 years and has decided that the grass burning program has really no impact on health.” That prompted more questions from Stennett, who noted that very young and old people and people with respiratory problems are particularly prone to health complications from smoke. “This is something of a pretty major public health issue,” she said. Harris then clarified his earlier comment, saying, “The bill affects ozone, not the particulate matter.” It’s the particulate matter in smoke that exacerbates health conditions for those with respiratory problems. He said the change would actually make the air healthier, by allowing field burning to be spread out over more days.
“If what you say is true, why did the Crop Residue Committee that reports to the DEQ resign?” Stennett asked. Harris responded, “I don’t know.”
Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, then told the Senate, “The committee did not resign as far as I know, maybe parts of the committee did. I think the point is the total particulates aren’t higher, only ozone is. … It’s just changing the ozone level, it doesn’t change any other standards.”
You can read about how three members of DEQ’s Crop Residue Advisory Committee resigned in December in protest over this change in my Jan. 25 story here.
The Senate vote was almost a straight party-line vote, with all five “no” votes coming from minority Democrats, but Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, voted yes on the bill, SB 1009.. “I grew up on a farm,” she said, “and I know if you’ve got fewer days to burn and the burning is back-to-back, that only impacts air quality more.”