Erosion danger fans flames

  In Washington state, Patricia Hoffman's community group, Save Our Summers, successfully led the fight to end bluegrass-field burning that was choking the city of Spokane (HCN, 12/22/97). Now she's launched another air-clearing campaign, this time against wheat-stubble burning.

"This is the first year that we haven't had plumes rising in Spokane County," Hoffman says. "What we have instead is a kind of relentless, constant smoke in the air." Save Our Summers is hoping a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has officially approved burning as a soil-conservation practice, will help clear the skies.

Eastern Washington may face a trade-off: clear skies on one hand, clear streams and productive farmland on the other. Farmers say if they don't burn, they must till their fields. This loosens the soil, which then easily erodes - just what farmers want to avoid as the federal agency pushes them to prevent soil loss and keep salmon streams clear.

The plaintiffs allege that the agency violated environmental law by failing to examine, in an environmental impact statement, how smoke from burning wheat fields aggravates respiratory diseases like asthma and cystic fibrosis. In late October, the agency asked the court to dismiss the case, saying that its action was too minor to require an EIS.

Pollution levels do rise during the wheat-stubble burning season, the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority agrees, but it notes that the season is also prime time for forest fires, dust storms and other pollution sources.

*Gabriel Ross

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