COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho (AP) - The Idaho Department of Agriculture
is promising several improvements in the state's smoke-management
plan for this year's bluegrass burning season.
Last year's program was sharply criticized by clean air
activists and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing
to protect people from field smoke.
Safe Air for Everyone, a Sandpoint group with 1,200 members
formed last year to fight field burning, called last year's program
a complete failure.
John Iani, EPA's regional director, also criticized Idaho for
allowing widespread unauthorized burning on both burn and no-burn
days last year.
The season is scheduled to start Aug. 1. Farmers burn to
encourage new grass production and kill pests. They can burn only
on certain days and under in late summer and early fall.
More than 74,280 acres were burned statewide last year,
including 5,462 acres in Kootenai County and 30,000 acres on the
Coeur d'Alene Indian reservation. The tribe has its own smoke
management program.
Idaho is the last state in the region to allow significant
amounts of bluegrass burning. The practice has been largely banned
in Washington and sharply curtailed in Oregon for health reasons.
This year's revised program keeps fire as a tool for farmers
while minimizing the impact of smoke on Idaho's citizens, said
Agriculture Department director Pat Takasugi.
Farmers in 10 northern counties must comply with stricter rules,
including penalties for noncompliance.
A first-time violator will be prohibited from burning any
acreage for a year. Further violation within a three-year period
would trigger a civil penalty up to $10,000.
"I am confident that the addition of a penalty to the program
will even further strengthen our efforts," Takasugi said.
The program will be partially funded through a $1 an acre burn
registration program, expected to generate $70,000 a year from
bluegrass growers. The agency is also applying for grant money,
said spokeswoman Julie Pipal.
The department will use the radio and the Internet to notify
people of burn days.
Last year, there were seven days of field burning in North
Idaho, Pipal said.
"We hope by streamlining the program this year, we'll be able
to make it even shorter," she said.
But critics say the state program is underfunded and inadequate
to chase field burning violations in 10 Idaho counties. They are
also uneasy that the Legislature transferred the smoke management
program from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to the
Agriculture Department.
Seattle attorney Steve Berman has launched a constitutional
challenge to a section of the new state law, HB 391, that gives
farmers "safe harbor" from liability for making people sick when
they burn their fields.
Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne signed the bill in April.
Oral arguments in the constitutional challenge start Thursday in
1st District Court.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)