Idaho Department of Evironmental Quality
BOISE — The Environmental Protection Agency is recommending approval of a proposed change to Idaho’s field burning program that is designed to avoid a large reduction in the number of allowable burn days for farmers.
An Idaho Department of Environmental Quality revision of the state’s crop residue burning program was approved last year by state lawmakers but EPA has to OK the change because it’s included in Idaho’s plan to comply with the Clean Air Act.
Idaho farm groups back the change because without it, the number of allowable burn days would decrease by up to half, according to DEQ estimates.
“Our folks are very pleased with EPA’s decision to move forward with the adoption of (the change),” said Roger Batt, executive director of the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Seed Association, which participated in a series of negotiated rulemaking meetings where the revision was hammered out.
Idaho farmers burn about 40,000 to 50,000 acres a year for a variety of reasons, including pest and disease management and maintaining yields.
Batt said field burning “is important to our producers, especially our bluegrass seed industry in North Idaho, who depend on fire as a tool to produce a viable crop” and a large reduction in allowable burn days “was simply unacceptable.”
DEQ can approve a burn request only if ozone and small particulate matter (PM 2.5) levels aren’t expected to exceed 75 percent of the national standards for those air pollutants.
But the federal ozone standard was tightened in 2015, which would have reduced the number of allowable burn days in Idaho by up to 50 percent. To avoid that, DEQ proposed loosening Idaho’s ozone threshold to 90 percent of the federal standard.
Public health and conservation groups wanted to tighten the state’s PM 2.5 threshold to offset the loosening of the ozone standard, an idea opposed by farm groups and rejected by DEQ.
Three members of the state’s crop residue burning advisory committee that represented conservation and safe air groups resigned from the committee as a result. One of them, Patti Gora-McRavin, called EPA’s recommended approval of DEQ’s plan “a real step backward for public health.”
Gora-McRavin, who represented safe air advocates on the committee, is the former executive director of Safe Air For Everyone. It was SAFE’s 2007 lawsuit that resulted in a temporary halt to field burning in Idaho, a situation that resulted in negotiations that led to the state’s current crop residue burning program.
EPA’s proposed approval of DEQ’s plan was published in the Federal Register Jan. 22. A 30-day public comment period concludes Feb. 21 and final approval of the rule could happen this summer.
Tiffany Floyd, who manages DEQ’s air quality division, said the department submitted a technical modeling demonstration that showed EPA the change would not result in field burning in Idaho exceeding federal air quality standards.
“It was nice to see the same viewpoint from EPA,” she said. “This change, to me, is still very protective of public health.”