Ag burn exemption delay sought

FRESNO — Valley air officials want to allow some agricultural waste burning beyond the June 1 deadline for permanently ending the practice.

Alternatives are too expensive for some farmers, air leaders say.

But state Sen. Dean Florez, who wrote the 2003 law phasing out farm burning, says the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is inflating the costs and giving some farmers a free pass.

Florez said he will ask the district board today to delay the exemptions — which are allowed under the law — so he can schedule a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on the district's analysis.

"The district is finding ways that farmers can exempt themselves," said the Shafter Democrat, who has long maintained the district bends to the will of farmers and other industries. "That's very troubling."

District officials say they have complied with the law, Senate Bill 705. Over the last seven years, the amount of acreage burned each year has been reduced by 70 percent. That figure will increase to 80 percent or 90 percent by next month, they said, and it will further increase if cheaper alternatives are found in the future.

Officials said their more than 500-page analysis shows there should be limited exemptions for a variety of farmers, including almond, grape and citrus growers.

The costs of chipping, grinding and sending crop waste to biomass plants are simply too much for many growers who have small farms or have specific problems, such as wire removal in vineyard waste, officials said.

No longer unlimited

And the remaining burning does not have the impact it did years ago, officials said, thanks to a smoke management system that divides the valley into more than 100 smaller burning zones. Daily weather forecasts determine which areas can burn without smoking out the valley.

"Farmers can't burn any time they want," said Seyed Sadredin, the air district's executive director.

Last year, nearly 1,673 tons of fine particles went into the air from farm burning. According to data filed with the California Air Resources Board, farm burning tops the list of contributors of soot and smoke, ahead of fireplace burning and farm dust.

But officials say farm burning generally does not take place during the worst times for such particles, known as particulate matter 2.5, which is late fall and winter. The particles — many of them from diesel trucks and fireplace burning — tend to hang in the air for days in the valley's fog season.

There are still problems for anyone who breathes the soot and smoke, say health experts. PM 2.5 is among the most dangerous air pollutants in the valley, causing heart problems, lung disease and early mortality.

Air activists say the best alternative to burning is shredding the waste and tilling it into the soil.

Many growers chip their prunings and orchard removals, then send them to a bio- mass plant, which burns them to make electricity. A modern biomass plant produces a small fraction of the pollution that open-field burning creates.

Sadredin said there is no assurance that biomass plant operators would take the farm waste in future years, even though there is capacity at biomass plants right now. He said the uncertainty over biomass capacity makes it a factor in allowing exemptions.

The California Biomass Energy Alliance disputes the district's analysis of the biomass industry in the valley. The region's biomass plants have room right now for a lot of farm waste because the recession has all but eliminated construction-wood waste.