Oregon extinguishes field burning

State will allow burn allotment for farmers facing extreme economic hardship


The Register-Guard

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) -- Field-burning smoke in the southern Willamette Valley this summer will be a wisp compared with every previous year for the past half-century, during which thick black plumes and a gray ground-level haze typically marred many a summer day.

This summer, the state's new ban on most field burning takes effect.

Still, the embers of controversy smolder as state officials write administrative rules to allow a small amount of field burning -- only 5 percent of the 40,000-acre south valley historic burning norm -- that's still legal under the field-burning ban passed by the Legislature last year.

The 2,000-acre total burn allotment is for farmers facing extreme economic hardship because insect or disease outbreaks are threatening their fields. But farmers and environmental lawyers are fighting over how farmers prove they face sufficient economic jeopardy to be entitled to a burn permit -- and how that business jeopardy should be weighed against potential harm to residents of surrounding towns who are likely to breathe the smoke.

Since April, about 188 Oregonians submitted testimony on the Department of Environmental Quality's proposed field burning rules, and others signed petitions.

Most of the comments expressed concerns about the remaining field burning, DEQ air quality specialist Brian Finneran said. The Environmental Quality Commission, a five-member citizens committee that oversees the DEQ's rules and policies, will vote either Aug. 18 or 19 on the proposed field burning rules. The rules will take effect about one week after the commission's approval.

South valley farmers who can meet the emergency criteria for a burn permit must wait until after the vote to burn their fields.

Separately, the new law allows 15,000 acres of field burning to continue in the northern Willamette Valley, mostly in Marion County, by growers of particular grass species on steep terrain.

The continuing dispute over the 2,000-acre emergency burn allotment shows both how field burning remains a hot button topic, and how far the state has moved in largely eliminating field burning.

In the south valley, George Pugh, a farmer who helped shape the proposed new rules, said the emergency burn provisions are so restrictive that no pest outbreak on an Oregon grass seed farm would be severe enough to qualify for a burn permit.

"You have to prove a high level of economic distress. It's just too big of a hurdle. I really do not expect to see it used," said Pugh, a Shedd grass seed farmer.

Farmers will be left without fire as a tool to fight the crop-damaging ergot, blind seed disease and annual blue grass weed invasions, he lamented.

"It may get to be so big of a problem that a farmer doesn't have a whole lot of hope," Pugh said. "Field burning opponents don't understand the farm economy. They don't realize how small our margins are -- or the edge we're running on year-by-year, anyway.

Field burning opponents, however, say the proposed field burning rules are too lax. The rules upend the Legislature's intent to make public health the state's first priority, said Dan Galpern, attorney at the Eugene-based Western Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit law firm that helped push for the 2009 law.

The Legislature passed the field burning ban based on research documenting health hazards associated with breathing fine particulate in smoke, including diseases of the heart and lungs.

The state's major medical organizations, including the Oregon Medical Association and PeaceHealth, backed the legislation.

In the rules, the state staff drafting the language neglected to define the meaning of the extreme hardship that farmers under the new law must now show before they can dip into the 2,000-acre emergency burn bank. Without definition, regulators in the future may consider a small loss in a farmer's ability to market grass seed to meet the emergency standard, clearing the way for emergency field burning, Galpern said.

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