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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Activists sue EPA over field burning

Nicholas K. Geranios Associated Press

The burning of grass-seed fields in North Idaho each summer sends plumes of smoke into the air that damages the lungs of people in Washington, Idaho and surrounding areas, according to documents filed in a federal appeals court Thursday.

Clean-air activists are asking a federal panel to rescind the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of field burning, which farmers contend is necessary to stimulate production of the next year’s crop.

“By allowing field burning in Idaho, EPA is making huge steps backwards in terms of protecting air quality for all state residents,” said Patti Gora, director at Safe Air For Everyone, which for years has campaigned to end the practice.

The EPA declined to comment on the filing.

Gora’s group, along with the American Lung Association and Earthjustice, are suing the EPA in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. They contend the agency violated the Clean Air Act.

Kentucky bluegrass seed grown in North Idaho is shipped across the nation to be used in landscaping and golf courses.

In their first briefs on the lawsuit, clean-air advocates contended Thursday that the EPA relaxed clean-air protections in Idaho when it allowed field burning to continue.

“These field burns create towers of smoke that can drift for miles from the burn sites,” Gora said, adding that children and the elderly are particularly susceptible to the smoke.

The EPA has said it did not relax clean-air protections, but merely clarified what had been allowed under Idaho law.

When it published the rule in the Federal Register in July, the EPA wrote that it “is aware of and continues to be concerned about the health and welfare impacts associated with crop-residue burning in Idaho and is working with the State Department of Agriculture and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to improve Idaho’s crop-residue burning and smoke-management program.”

More than 500 doctors in the Inland Northwest have signed a petition calling for an end to grass burning.

The challenge contends the EPA did not adequately study the myriad dangers from field burning, including respiratory illness and lack of visibility on highways. The agency also created a new exemption to what is a broad ban on open burning, said Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles.

The EPA will have a month to respond to the filing, and then oral arguments will likely be scheduled, she said.

Oregon and Washington grass-seed farmers have switched to other methods of crop care, such as cutting the grass close to the crown of the plant, and baling of straw to sell as livestock feed.

The EPA decision allowed Idaho to make crop-residue disposal an allowable category of open burning. The state made the request after health groups threatened to sue North Idaho grass-seed farmers for burning fields.

Field burning is banned in Washington state.