Ecology opposes continuing task force that would set fees

By STEVE BROWN

Capital Press

OLYMPIA -- Jim Jesernig recalls the bad old days of field burning.

"In 1990, we had the perfect storm of non-smoke management," he said.

Jesernig, governmental relations consultant for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, was director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture at the time.

The air-quality crisis that year was caused by several factors, he said. Grass straw and wheat stubble had accumulated, so growers burned it in about a week instead of over three to four weeks. A rare east wind blew in smoke from burning on Idaho's Rathdrum Prairie. Then air inversion layers concentrated the heavy smoke around Spokane and Pullman.

This prompted a lawsuit against the state Department of Ecology for failure to enforce the federal Clean Air Act.

Since 1996, a task force has worked to identify best management practices for reducing emissions, set permit fees and specified research needs.

"Emissions have now been greatly reduced," Jesernig said.

Members of that task force represent Ecology, the WSDA, local air quality authorities, the agricultural community, universities, health agencies and conservation districts.

"The program has been a success by all measures," Jesernig reported Jan. 25 to the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Rural Economic Development. "It allows clean-air advocates and farmers to have their say."

Revenue from burning permit fees covers the local cost of administering the permit, funding for the smoke management program and research into alternatives for field burning.

Currently the fee is capped at $2.50, established in 1991. Senate Bill 6556 would increase the cap to $3.75 an acre.

Also Ecology would be given authority to charge a permit fee for burning piles of orchard prunings and trees, not to exceed $1 a ton.

Jesernig said his organization supports the increase in fees "to keep the program fiscally sound."

Marshall Taylor, with the state Department of Ecology, said the money received from the fees covers 25 percent of the cost of the program, with the rest coming from the general fund. "Ecology can set fees without a task force," he said.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, challenged that number, saying that farmers have received erroneous reports on available money from the regional director.

"The growers agree to the fee increase," Schoesler said. "Support will diminish without the task force."

Taylor said, "The governor has decided she wants to run government differently."

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