Idaho chokes Spokane

  • The first day of grass-field burning near Post Falls, Idaho

    Kathleen Kelly photo

Eleven-year old Derek Uphus fears the start of school each year because that's when local farmers near his Spokane, Wash., home begin burning their fields and fouling the air over the city. He suffers from cystic fibrosis and asthma and when there's smoke in the air, Uphus coughs constantly. "It's like someone's hands are around my neck," he says. "It feels like I'm allergic to Spokane."

Uphus isn't alone. Thousands in the Pacific Northwest say they suffer from the acrid smoke of burning crop residue from wheat, barley and the biggest culprit, bluegrass, a seed crop grown for lawns and golf courses. Burning has become a contentious issue in eastern Washington and over the border in Idaho as well. Both areas boast some of the nation's most fertile agricultural territory.

Farmers have been burning harvested land in eastern Washington and northern Idaho to rejuvenate soil and eliminate weeds and pests for more than a century. But burning bluegrass - after the seed harvest - became a yearly practice only in 1963, when Washington farmers torched 16,000 acres. Bluegrass seed has since become a $130 million crop and in 1993, farmers in both states burned an all-time-high of 100,000 acres of bluegrass, including 40,000 acres within a 40-mile radius of Spokane. The dense smoke sometimes blotted out the sun, and streetlights were known to go on at midday.

The Washington Department of Ecology monitors all crop burning, but it is unregulated across the state line in Idaho - some six miles away - where 40,000 acres are planted in bluegrass. Bluegrass farmers maintain a weather station to determine when conditions are safest for burning, but if the weather changes after the smoke is in the air, nothing can be done.

To escape from smoke, Derek Uphus lives in an airtight house and doesn't go outside to play. At night, he says, he often sleeps near his parents because he's afraid he might die. "I feel like I live in a bubble. I can't be a kid," he says. Last year, Uphus missed 80 days of school. His mother, Diana, blames it all on the smoke.

An attempt to solve the problem

To reduce burning, Washington state has created a task force with its first target the bluegrass burning. Last year, when public opposition to bluegrass burning gained momentum, the state pledged to phase out the practice within two years (HCN, 4/29/96).

Farmers have since cut the burning by two-thirds, torching just 20,000 acres this fall. Still, many residents doubt the problem will end soon. Patricia Hoffman, president of Save Our Summers, a field-burning watchdog group in Spokane, says the issue moved behind closed doors at the Department of Ecology after bluegrass industry members met privately with the agency's new director, Tom Fitzsimmons. Afterwards, Fitzsimmons announced the agency would give growers "a little more time" to come up with safer alternatives. In the meantime, burning continues.

"The industry has been buying time since the 1960s," Hoffman says. She argues that non-burning alternatives, such as mechanical cutting, already exist. Farmers say cutting is too expensive.

The state blames the delay on the federal Clean Air Act, which requires that alternatives to burning be "economical" and "practical." Such terms, says Department of Ecology spokeswoman Jani Gilbert, are open to interpretation.

"We already have the research," she says, "but we need to get legal help to define the criteria." Gilbert is optimistic that the agency will certify an alternative that meets the criteria by the end of 1998.

Two states, two burning policies

Washington's phase-out policy has helped a little. For the first time in five years, Derek Uphus didn't spend August in the hospital. However, his asthma still flared up because of smoke that reached Spokane from Northern Idaho, where burning is allowed under the state's Right to Farm law.

During the week of Sept. 21, farmers torched hundreds of acres of wheat stubble on Idaho's Rathdrum Prairie. Hoffman took aerial photographs of the smoke "coming straight into the Spokane Valley." At the same time, she says, hospital admissions for respiratory problems doubled in Spokane, with most of the complaints in Spokane County about smoke blowing in from Idaho.

Dan Redline, air quality specialist for Idaho's Division of Environmental Quality, says Idaho does not consistently violate federal air quality standards. But that doesn't mean the air is clean. Instead, the standards may not be designed with field fires in mind. "The standard monitors air quality from midnight to midnight the following day (on a 24-hour average,)" Redline says. "And traditionally, we've always adopted the federal standards."

But bluegrass is burned just a few hours a day, and the smoke creates an intense short-term problem. Redline questions whether federal rules are adequate to protect public health.

Meanwhile, northern Idaho bluegrass farmers burn with impunity. In August, eight of the Rathdrum Prairie's 20 bluegrass farmers agreed to a voluntary, 10-year phase-out plan affecting only 5,000 acres. The plan was initiated by an Idaho seed company, but when the company changed management, the farmers put to flame nearly all the region's 40,000 acres, including those acres of bluegrass involved in the phase-out.

Art Long, spokesman for the Clean Air Coalition in Idaho, wants the state to take responsibility for eliminating field-burning crop residue. But, he says, "Idaho's Legislature is controlled by farm groups, and anything to do with farming is OK. It is a very exploitative mind-set."

For now, Spokane residents will continue to endure smoke coming from Idaho. "Ideally, we'd like to see Washington eliminate burning," Long says, "and then turn around and sue Idaho."

Meanwhile, the Uphus family attends public hearings and has spoken with Washington Gov. Gary Locke, who has expressed concern about the health of Spokane residents and urged the Department of Ecology to speed the search for burning alternatives.

"Besides moving away," says Diana Uphus, "what more can we do?"

* Sara Phillips, HCN intern

You can contact ...

* Save Our Summers at P.O. Box 142043, Spokane, WA 99214 (509/928-2417), or,

* The Department of Ecology at N. 4601 Monroe St., Suite 202, Spokane, WA 99205 (509/456-2926).