Increased fees to offset general funds, maintain program

By MATTHEW WEAVER

Capital Press

Washington farmers are going to pay more for agricultural burning, state officials say.

The Washington Department of Ecology is developing new rules for agricultural burning to reflect amendments to state law the Legislature approved last session.

The law allows a new maximum burning fee cap of $3.75 per acre earlier this year. The legislation also changes the pile-burning fee from a per-acre to a per-ton fee, according to a notice from the department. The previous fee cap was $2.50 an acre.

Field burning fees will be raised to cover more of the department's smoke management program costs. Language that designated the length of crop rotation cycle as a criteria to get a waiver for open burning of field or turf grasses will be removed.

The changes are expected to become effective in 2011.

Spokane air quality program inspection manager Karen Wood said farmers proposed the legislation out of fear of losing parts of the program due to budget cuts.

The state's burning decisions take place seven days a week, Wood said, allowing farmers more flexibility to accomplish their burning in a timely manner.

"Were we to limit that due to budget cuts, which would mean staff cuts, then we'd have to consolidate as much burning as we have into only five days a week," Wood said.

That would also increase the risk of smoke in nearby communities.

Farmers do not have to make changes to their operations beyond paying more for the current program.

"The higher fee allows them to continue doing what they've been doing," department communications manager Seth Preston said.

The changes will not affect those areas where burning is not allowed, Wood said.

In the past, the state used general fund money to pay program costs, Wood said, but the economic crisis has hit such funding hard. By increasing the fees, there will be a smaller subsidy for the program, so industry members will be on the way to full-cost recovery for the program.

"It's a very positive thing for industry to do," she said.

Richelle Perez, environmental planner for the department, said the department next goes through a public process, drafting rule language and holding a public comment period before publishing a final version of the rule.

Wood said the department will distribute information through conservation district offices beginning July 1. A website contains official documentation about the rule-making process, and another is being created to cover more information.

Online

Washington State Department of Ecology: www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/air/aginfo/agricultural_homepage.htm

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