Grape and citrus growers get a break on ag burning

FRESNO — Grape and citrus growers Thursday got a reprieve from a farm burning ban that takes effect June 1, but millions of dollars in state funding for San Joaquin Valley air quality may now be at risk.

State Sen. Dean Florez threatened to start a campaign to cut off funds for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District if the agency went ahead with plans to let certain growers continue burning farm waste. Florez wrote the 2003 law requiring the practice to end this year.

About two-thirds of the district's $150 million comes from the state.

However, most air district officials downplayed Florez's threat, with some saying it would make little sense to cut off cleanup funds to one of the nation's dirtiest air basins.

"I've heard no compelling reason not to move forward," said district board member Ann Johnston, who is mayor of Stockton. The board voted 8-2 to approve the exemptions, which are available under the law if air officials prove that alternatives to burning are too expensive.

The decision means grape and citrus growers will be exempted from the burning ban because their costs of chipping, grinding and sending the waste to a biomass plant are too high, officials concluded in a 500-page report. If chipping and shredding become more affordable, grape and citrus growers will be included in the burn ban in the future.

Air district funds threatened

Florez, who has long maintained the district bends policies to benefit industries, could not attend the meeting, instead remaining in Sacramento for a legislative session.

One of his staffers, Susan Good, represented the senate at Thursday's board meeting, reading a demand that the district completely stop farm burning or "it will no longer be able to count on the state to subsidize its efforts to promote clean air."

Board chairman Steve Worthley, a Tulare County supervisor, was visibly upset that Florez would make a threat.

"If he were here today, we would be having a conversation," he said.

Florez also requested a delay in the board's decision until Senate hearings could be convened on the issue. As an incentive, he offered to push for $10 million to help subsidize biomass plants that use farm waste.

Board members Henry Jay Foreman, a state appointee, and Mike Lane, a Visalia council member, voted against district staff's recommendation. Foreman said he would like to see all farm burning stopped; Lane said he was concerned about Florez's threat.

District staffers noted that they have complied with the law — waste burning acreage has dropped 70 percent since 2002. The board's action on Thursday also toughened the district's rules to prevent further burning from many other growers, so that 80 percent to 90 percent of the burning acreage has been eliminated in the last eight years.