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SK dodges burn ban for another year

Thanks to urging from Fire District 7 officials and problems finding accurate waste disposal data, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency announced this month it won’t enact a countywide ban on land-clearing burning this year.

Next year, however, is a different story.

In response to state legislation that encourages agencies such as the CAA to ban outdoor burning wherever possible, the CAA over the last year has been researching the feasibility of banning large-scale burning in four counties: King, Pierce, Kitsap and Snohomish.

Although some representatives of other counties favored countywide bans, Fire District 7 officials took a strong position against such a move.

“We did not feel the county was prepared to implement that kind of a ban, nor were we ready to educate the public,” said Fire Chief Mike Brown.

One of the biggest issues is with possible burning alternatives. Land-clearing burning tends to take in acres of brush and stumps and is usually done in order to prepare the land for residential or commercial development. What’s left over to be burnt after the trees are removed can’t exactly be bagged and left out for trash pickup.

In most counties that have similar bans, the waste is usually shredded or chipped and taken to designated, and often private, waste disposal centers. The state keeps lists of such sites cut, as both the CAA and Brown pointed out, the data rarely up-to-date. Brown said more than half the disposal sites listed were no longer in operation and the others were very expensive to use.

“The cost would be astronomical for the land clearing,” Brown said. “This would lead people to burn illegally and that would be an impact on us.”

State law requires an “economically feasible” alternative to burning for a ban to be permissible. Amy Fowler, a CAA air resource specialist who is heading the burn ban research project, said the law defines economically feasible as being equal to or less than the state-wide median of dumping costs.

Fowler said all four counties fell within the median, given the data currently available. However, she added, there was reason to believe those prices could be going up significantly over the next year, thanks to a recent Department of Ecology decision that restricts how long dumped waste can remain at the disposal sites.

“For some folks, that may change the way they do business,” Fowler said. “I heard from one provider they may be going out of business because of this.”

Therefore, the CAA has postponed its final decision until the end of the year. The CAA staff has to make a recommendation by Dec. 31, 2004, and then the CAA Board of Directors — made up of city and county officials — must vote whether to uphold the recommendation.

It may turn out, Fowler said, that some counties will be more affected than others by this change in DOE standards. If so, she said the CAA is willing to implement a land-clearing burning ban on a county-by-county basis. Technically, the affected areas can be even smaller than that, but Fowler said the CAA tries to avoid that now.

Back in 2000, the CAA first implemented residential burn bans within urban areas. Initially, the program was a disaster, she said. No one knew whether they lived within the ban area or not and enforcing the ban became a real headache.

In one place, Fowler remembers, the burn ban boundary was a small stream and residents in that area were caught hauling their debris through the stream and burning it on the other side.

“Which is not only against state law, but it isn’t very good for the stream,” she said.

Brown said the fire district doesn’t want to be at the center at these sort of debates. Many people in South Kitsap take their burning rights very seriously and have even started neighborhood feuds during ban times.

Although residential burning is too small to fall under this particular ban, Brown said he doesn’t relish the idea of having the district’s firefighters fielding calls from angry neighbors if and when the ban goes into effect. He pledged to continue his opposition to the proposed ban in the year to come.

“At least it’s not going to happen in 2004,” Brown said.

The CAA is a regulatory agency mostly funded by state and federal grants. In addition to implementing and enforcing clean air legislation, it also handles community projects aimed at reducing vehicle emissions and air pollution. Currently, the agency is helping South Kitsap School District use a $300,000 grant to retrofit its diesel school buses to make them run cleaner.

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