The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality wants to ease field burning restrictions so farmers can set fields afire on weekends and holidays, but a clean air group says it will go to court to block such a move.
Mary Anderson, the agency’s smoke manager program coordinator, said the changes are intended to help southern Idaho farmers who can farm only on weekends.
“It didn’t make sense that we were shutting down burning when air quality was still good,” Anderson told The Spokesman-Review. “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.”
The changes to the field-burning regulations are part of the Department of Environmental Quality’s report on crop residue burning to be discussed March 13 in Boise during an advisory committee meeting for the state’s agriculture burning program.
The Sandpoint-based Safe Air For Everyone in 2007 won a legal victory that shut down field burning in Idaho amid health concerns. In May of that year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals clarified an earlier ruling declaring Idaho’s field burning practices illegal under the Clean Air Act. The justices also ordered the EPA to void approval of the state’s burning rules, angering farmers who for the first time in decades were barred last fall from setting their fields aflame.
Burning returned in 2008 following a mediated agreement involving the state, clean air activists and farmers.
Patti Gora-McRavin, executive director of Safe Air For Everyone, said the group will return to court if the state decides to change the rules agreed on in 2008.
“We’ve been able to work pretty well under this agreement to this point, so this is a shocking turn of events,” she said, warning regulators: “If you mess with this now, we will have no choice but to try to stop it through the courts or other measures.”
Bluegrass growers in northern Idaho and farmers of other crops in other parts of the state like to torch harvested cropland. But Safe Air For Everyone in legal filings en route to its 2007 court victory linked agricultural field burning to health problems and at least nine deaths. The federal court ruled Idaho’s crop residue burn plan had been illegal since 1993 and banned all agricultural burning outside of the state’s five Indian reservations.
“We no longer have people rushing to the emergency room, and we no longer have incidents of deaths,” said Gora-McRavin of the results following the mediated agreement.
Anderson said new information has emerged since the agreement that could allow the field-burning rules to be modified.
“Our priority has always been protecting public health and air quality,” Anderson said.
She said that if the agency decides to enter into negotiations to change existing rules, there will be public comment opportunities. Also, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would have to approve any changes to make sure the state isn’t violating the Clean Air Act.