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Oregon grass seed industry feels betrayed

Capital Press 9/8/08

ALBANY, Ore. (AP) - Oregon's chief air quality regulator says there's no intent to drive the grass-seed industry out of business. But a chief spokesman for the industry says growers feel betrayed.

Both are talking about the decision by Gov. Ted Kulongoski to seek an end to agricultural field burning in the Willamette Valley after 2010.

The governor directed the Department of Environmental Quality to draft legislation to that effect. The bill has been submitted to legislative counsel and will be introduced when the Legislature convenes in January.

In an explanation of the bill, the DEQ says smoke from field burning "can be a significant health issue for people sensitive to the pollutants found in smoke. While efforts are made to conduct burning under optimum conditions, impacts from field burning smoke do occur."

In 1991, the Legislature reduced, in stages, the acreage of open burning each summer until it reached the current maximum 65,000 acres.

The world has changed since 1991, said Andy Ginsburg, air quality administrator with the DEQ.

He thinks that while growers in the valley could not get by without some burning then, they may well be able to adapt now. Grass seed growers burn their fields to help rid them of disease and pests.

"Washington state has banned field burning and the grass seed industry is still thriving there," he said in an interview.

"The governor is concerned about the economy too and there's no intent to drive the grass-seed industry out of business," Ginsburg said. But at this point the concern about exposure to smoke is outweighing other concerns, according to him.

Roger Beyer, the former state senator who has been spokesman for the Oregon Seed Council since July, said the growers feel betrayed by the proposal.

They have put up more money for research into making ethanol from the straw of annual ryegrass, the kind that is typically still burned, and it's shortsighted to enact a ban before that plays out, Beyer said in an interview.

The ethanol research "is looking pretty good," he said, but it will be at least three years before anything can be built.

Ginsburg said that weighing the pros and cons of a ban is not a scientific question.

"Good strong arguments can be made on both sides," he said. "That's why we elect our officials ... It's really a matter of balancing incompatible interests."

While an early draft of the bill would limit burning to 40,000 acres in 2009, Ginsburg said that part's been dropped because it would be too late to change the system by the time the bill becomes law.

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