FRESNO — A long-awaited deadline for a ban on open-field burning in the San Joaquin Valley is coming June 1. But many vineyard owners say they can't afford to follow the rule.
Alternatives in use on many types of valley farms, such as burning waste at a biomass energy plant, may not work on vineyards, where plant waste often is tangled in wires and wooden stakes.
Air officials will produce a report in spring for vineyard owners and may recommend exemptions based on financial hardship. The governing board of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District would decide if any exemptions are allowed.
Air activists say they hope the report seriously examines alternatives to burning.
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"We want details, not a false choice between burning and going out of business," said Sarah Jackson, a research assistant with nonprofit legal watchdog Earthjustice in Oakland.
Open-field burning has declined by 70 percent since 2002, the year before Senate Bill 705 largely outlawed the practice in the air district, which extends from San Joaquin to Kern counties.
Some burning is allowed to prevent the spread of crop disease, and the law permits a waiver, typically for smaller farms, allowing the practice to continue until alternatives become affordable.
In 2002, about 476,000 acres of waste were burned. Last year, the total was about 139,000 acres.
As a result, smoke from agricultural burning still adds a daily average of 13 tons of soot to the valley's air quality problems, according to the California Air Resources Board. That's more than 10 percent of the valley's fine-particle pollution, called PM-2.5.
In 2007, the air district extended a waiver to tree-fruit growers with fewer than 20 acres. The air board may grant vineyard owners a similar waiver in June, depending on what the district staff's report says.
"It's tough for these options to work for everyone," said district executive director Seyed Sadredin. "Right now, we have a cha- otic and arcane system to deal with farm waste."
He was referring to shredding, collecting and trucking the waste to biomass plants, which burn the woody debris to create electricity.
The shredding and trucking mean more diesel smoke in the air, but biomass plants are more than 95 percent cleaner than open-field burning and they create electricity in the process. They are a preferred alternative if economically feasible.
But vineyard owners cannot easily shred and ship their waste to biomass plants because of wires that become embedded in stakes throughout vineyards. Most of the wires must be removed for disposal at biomass plants. That probably will be expensive, said Dennis Wilt, a third-generation grower with 620 acres of grapes near Kerman.
"Until now, we have stacked the stakes and burned them, then picked up the wire to be recycled," he said. "There's going to be some real financial problems if you have to pull it out."
Phil Reese, chairman of the California Biomass Energy Alliance, said about a dozen biomass plants in this region could accept green waste from valley farms.