Spokane residents thought they’d won a bluegrass burning ban when former Washington Department of Ecology Director Mary Riveland announced a three-year phase-out last year.
“We pledge to put alternatives to grass field burning into effect within three years, thus eliminating grass field burning by the summer of 1998,” Riveland said at a March 1996 press conference in Spokane.
But that deadline has faded with Riveland’s retirement, and an end to the smoke that fills Spokane’s skies each summer is in doubt.
Tom Fitzsimmons, Gov. Gary Locke’s new Ecology director, said he may give grass growers more time to research no-burn alternatives before he douses grass burning statewide.
He’s promised a less confrontational relationship with the state’s powerful agriculture industry on a variety of issues, including grass burning. Ecology’s no longer in a “command and control” mode, he said, preferring to work with the groups it regulates.
“I don’t know whether I intend” to ban grass burning in 1998, Fitzsimmons said. The state’s Clean Air Act says “economical and practical” alternatives must be available to growers before the practice is ended.
Fitzsimmons’ stance angers Spokane clean-air activists and doctors, who say they’ve been misled.
They say no-burn alternatives are available, and the industry is again using delaying tactics.
“Riveland’s promise was very clear. She said there’d be no burning after 1998,” said Patricia Hoffman, a Spokane Valley veterinarian and founder of the anti-burning group Save Our Summers.
If Ecology delays a ban, it would be “abhorrent and totally irresponsible,” said Dr. Samuel Joseph of Rockwood Clinic, one of 312 Spokane doctors who petitioned Riveland in 1995 to ban grass burning for health reasons.
Joseph treats some of the sickest of approximately 42,000 Spokane County residents who suffer lung problems.
“Our patients have been looking forward to less smoke,” said Dr. Larry Klock of Spokane. If Ecology doesn’t go ahead with the 1998 ban, “they can expect to hear from the medical community again,” he said.
Riveland’s emergency edict banned burning on one-third of the state’s bluegrass fields last year for public health reasons. She said growers have had three decades to come up with alternatives to burning.
In those 30 years, cars are 96 percent cleaner, major industries have reduced air pollution by more than 90 percent, and wood stoves and open burning have been restricted in urban areas, she said.
Riveland signed a permanent rule in January in the final days of the Lowry administration to include two-thirds of the state’s nearly 60,000 acres of bluegrass fields in the phaseout.
It’s the final third that’s now in doubt.
“We’re dealing with an expectation that the final third was automatic. But that’s not how I’m going to do business,” Fitzsimmons said, declining to predict how long it might take to get to a final ban.
An industry spokeswoman said growers are working hard to find alternatives to torching their fields.
“Farmers are going to be trying anything and everything. We’d like to find an alternative tomorrow, but I believe it will take some time,” said Linda Clovis of the Intermountain Grass Growers Association.
Ecology is forgetting its first priority under the state Clean Air Act, said the mother of a child with cystic fibrosis.
“We are talking life here - not just making a living. It’s really disappointing if Ecology cannot stand firm,” said Diana Uphus of Otis Orchards.
Her 10-year-old son, Derek, was hospitalized for 30 days last year in late August and September, as grass fields and forest fires burned. During the final days of summer this year, he’s forced to stay inside.
Locke supported Riveland’s phase-out during his campaign for governor, said Spokane City Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers, who ran his campaign in Spokane.
“I told people when they called and asked Gary Locke’s opinion on grass burning that he supported Riveland,” Rodgers said.
The governor is on vacation through Labor Day and was unavailable for comment Friday, said Caroline Duncan, a Locke spokeswoman.
Since the Ecology phase-out, some bluegrass growers and seed processors have launched an aggressive, three-pronged attack on the regulation.
They sued Ecology in state court, claiming the section of the state’s Clean Air Act that allows Ecology to regulate bluegrass burning is unconstitutional.
On Thursday, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Paula Casey ruled against the growers. The IGGA is not involved in the litigation.
Other growers are fighting state efforts to monitor compliance in Whitman County and in the Columbia Basin, where 16,000 bluegrass acres were illegally burned without permits in 1995.
Columbia Basin growers went to the Legislature this year in an unsuccessful effort to exempt all counties except Spokane County from the burning phase-out.
The growers also are lobbying Locke and Fitzsimmons, letters to the governor’s office and Ecology show.
The growers met with Locke early this year. In June, Fitzsimmons toured the Fairfield farm of John Cornwall, a bluegrass farmer and IGGA president, to see the growers’ grass research plots.
Accompanying him was Tom Grover, Ecology’s new regional director from Yakima, who took over the top Ecology job in Spokane this summer.
“We want our relationship with the growers to improve,” said Jani Gilbert, spokeswoman for Ecology’s Spokane office.
Fitzsimmons met with clean-air activists after his June farm tour. But he hasn’t responded to a Save Our Summers invitation to meet with sick people during field burning.
Last year, Ecology formed an agricultural-burning task force to implement the phase-out.
Growers on the committee want more time to demonstrate whether they can rake off straw on their fields and reduce smoke without further acreage restrictions.
Some Ecology employees are skeptical of the growers’ bid to base grass burning restrictions on emissions, not acreage.
They say that would be impossible to enforce.
Among growers’ no-burn options the Ecology committee is discussing: dethatching fields, choosing higher-yield varieties, going to shorter bluegrass rotations and growing other crops.
“Our problem is to find a way to economically maintain yield without burning,” Clovis said.
Fitzsimmons will await a consensus of his committee before deciding what to do next year.
“The decision is in the committee’s hands at this point,” he said. “If they can’t come up with one, then we will.”
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