- Associated Press - Thursday, March 16, 2017

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho officials on Thursday approved rules loosening restrictions on agricultural field burning that health advocates say will lead to breathing problems for some residents.

The Idaho Board of Environmental Quality voted to allow field burning during worse air quality thresholds for ozone that could start in 2018 if approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The change will be healthier for residents because it allows burning on days more conducive to dispersing smoke, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality officials said.

“If you’ve got good dispersion, all of that is going to go up in the air and nobody is going to breathe it,” said the agency’s director, John Tippets.

Ground level ozone is typically produced in populated areas from motor vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions, according to the EPA. It can trigger health problems in children, the elderly, and those with lung diseases, including asthma.

But rural areas can have high background levels and health advocates said combining increased ozone with particulate matter caused by field burning can be harmful.

“Both of these kinds of air pollutants are scientifically proven to increase deaths,” said Patti Gora-McRavin of Safe Air For Everyone.

Gora-McRavin’s group during negotiations last summer said the increased ozone would be allowable if the state reduced the level of particulate matter in the air when allowing field burning. When the state refused, Gora-McRavin and representatives of two other groups quit an advisory board intended to guide field burning rules.

“We felt the state was not bargaining in good faith anymore,” she said.

Health advocates said the change betrays a 2008 agreement struck after a federal court in 2007 banned Idaho field burning at a time when the practice generated thousands of complaints and serious health problems for some residents. The groups say legal action is again a possibility.

The rule approved Thursday brings the state agency in line with a statute approved by Idaho lawmakers earlier this year.

Lawmakers took that action after the EPA lowered allowable ozone limits from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion. Under Idaho’s federally-approved State Implementation Plan, crop residue burning can only occur if the ozone level is 75 percent of the federal limit.

Farmers said the new, tougher limit would reduce field burning, used to rid fields of stubble and pests. Field burning runs from March to September, with about 35,000 to 45,000 acres burned annually.

The board also on Thursday approved a rule that allows crop burning this year using the old federal standard. That decision also matches action taken by state lawmakers.

State officials said using the outdated standard is allowable because it won’t result in ozone levels exceeding the new standard.

Gora-McRavin took issue with that interpretation.

“The state of Idaho can’t simply choose a year they want to use,” she said.

Idaho plans to submit a new State Implementation Plan to the EPA this fall seeking an increase in ozone limits and expects approval in late February. Specifically, Idaho is seeking to allow field burning when ozone levels are at 90 percent of the new federal limit of 70 parts per billion.

“Once submitted, EPA will evaluate these rule revisions to ensure that the National Ambient Air Quality Standards continue to be protected,” the federal agency said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press.

Nick Purdy, a central Idaho rancher and member of the Idaho Board of Environmental Quality, said he doesn’t do field burning but knows others in the region who do.

“It will be detrimental to them if this isn’t approved,” he said after the meeting.

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