Environmentalists, Health Groups Allege Illegal Weakening of Limits on Open Field Burning in Idaho

Federal lawsuit challenges clean air plan that allows burning in state


David Baron, Earthjustice (202) 667-4500
Patti Gora, SAFE (208) 301-2828

Earthjustice, on behalf of Idaho-based Safe Air For Everyone (SAFE) and the American Lung Association of Washington and Idaho today will argue in federal court against the Environmental Protection Agency’s allowance of open field burning in Idaho, a practice blamed by doctors for serious health impacts.

EPA approved a July 2005 clean air plan for Idaho that allows open field burning. Each summer, grass seed farmers burn thousands of acres of cropland as a cheap way of removing crop residue left over after harvesting. Burning generates huge plumes of thick smoke that can travel many miles away from burn sites, impacting air quality for communities in Idaho and other surrounding states and Canada.

Environmental and public health groups sued EPA in the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit (Case No. 05-75269), challenging EPA’s approval of the plan, which the groups say relaxed a ban on open field burning. Earthjustice attorney David Baron argued the case in court today in Seattle.

“We contend the EPA has violated the Clean Air Act by allowing open field burning to continue unabated in Idaho without even looking at the air quality impacts,” Baron said. “The health threat is so serious that people sometimes must leave their homes during burning to avoid the thick smoke clouds.”  See high resolution photos of open field burns from 2005.

Washington successfully banned all grass burning in 1998 with no loss to production, and has just passed a rule regulating other forms of agricultural burning to better protect public health, according to Patti Gora, with SAFE. But Idaho still allows thousands of acres to be burned every year.

“While other states have taken meaningful measures to protect public health while still allowing burning, the state of Idaho has consistently acted to protect financial interests of farmers as their first priority,” said Patti Gora, Executive Director of Safe Air For Everyone.  “For this reason, we have seen more serious injuries and even fatalities linked to agricultural burns in Idaho, whereas in neighboring states, these have been greatly diminished or eliminated.”

Some of the most intensive burning occurs in northern Idaho, particularly in Kootenai and Benewah counties, where farmers grow thousands of acres of grass to produce grass seeds and routinely burn the stubble left over after the seed is harvested. In 2002, 100 physicians from Latah and Kootenai Counties and Idaho and Whitman County in Washington signed an open letter calling for an end to agricultural burning.

“Scientific evidence conclusively documents that particulate air pollution, such as that generated by agricultural field burning, increases the incidence of respiratory and cardiac disease,” the doctors wrote. “We recognize that farming bestows benefits on communities it serves and that growers have legitimate concerns about ending field burning. However, we feel that the suffering of those adversely affected by field smoke is without adequate justification.”

Copies of the letter and other information regarding open field burning.

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