BOISE – Legislation that would create a controversial new definition of an “economically viable alternative” to field burning moved toward approval Thursday, just days after a district judge ruled in the state’s favor regarding the issue.
Critics say HB 33 will eliminate all incentive to find alternatives to field burning, yet it overwhelmingly cleared the same Senate committee that derailed the measure last year.
“The bill closes the door to finding healthier practices to protect all the people of North Idaho, not just polluters’ pocketbooks,” said Lauren McLean, an Idaho Conservation League lobbyist.
The new, stringent definition says the only economically viable alternative to field burning would be something that achieves the same agricultural objectives and doesn’t cost farmers a cent more, either in the short term or long term. The state agriculture director currently has to make a determination every year that no economically viable alternative is available, in order to allow field burning.
After passing the House of Representatives three weeks ago, the bill cleared the Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee on a 6-2 vote.
The ICL, American Lung Association of Idaho/Nevada and Sandpoint-based Safe Air For Everyone have filed lawsuits against the state the last two years, arguing that state Agriculture Director Pat Takasugi’s determinations were “capricious.”
More than a year and a half after the 2003 lawsuit was filed, 6th District Judge William Woodland ruled last week that Takasugi followed reasonable methods in making his determination.
Brad Purdy, a Boise attorney who represents the three organizations, said an appeal of that case is possible. Arguments in the suit over the director’s 2004 determination will be heard today in 4th District Court in Boise, he said.
“The controversy is still alive,” Purdy said. “Woodland’s ruling doesn’t have any bearing on this litigation.”
Although the same panel killed similar legislation last year by one vote, three new senators sit on the committee this year – including Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, who voted in favor of the bill.
The lawmaker who the led the charge against the bill in 2004, Sen. Fred Kennedy, D-Mountain Home, has retired and been replaced by GOP Sen. Tim Corder.
Field burning is profitable for grass-seed farmers because it brings on another crop without reseeding. But concerns center around burning on the Rathdrum Prairie, where wind patterns push thick smoke into the Sandpoint area. The smoke often settles there, leading to potentially serious health problems for people exposed to it.
While proponents of the measure, including Linda Clovis, a spokeswoman for the North Idaho Farmers Association, argued the bill would help bluegrass farmers continue to be prosperous, McLean and Democratic lawmakers said it spares farmers from regulations that other polluters must meet.
“The future of bluegrass farming is at stake,” said Clovis, adding that grass-seed farming adds $3.5 million annually to the state’s economy.
Clovis said the American Lung Association has given Kootenai and Bonner counties good air-quality marks. But Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, and McLean disputed her claims because the study she cited tests the amount of pollution in a 24-hour period, when it should look at smaller time fragments, they said.
“Kids in North Idaho don’t take in pollution in 24-hour pieces,” McLean said. “These places are inundated with plumes of pollution very quickly.”
Broadsword disagreed with McLean’s reasoning, arguing that more pollution comes from development in the area than from field burning.
“What’s worse: A field that’s taken over by a new house with two cars or a few weeks of field burning every year?” she asked.
Democratic Sens. Clint Stennett of Ketchum and Kate Kelly of Boise were the only legislators to vote against sending the measure to the full Senate.
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