March 14, 2009

benefits of burning don't outweigh the health risks

From The Oregonian:

Every summer for more than 50 years, the burning of grass seed fields has sent black and gray plumes high into the Willamette Valley sky. But the practice may be about to flame out, just over two decades after smoke from burning grass straw in Linn County caused seven traffic deaths on Interstate 5.

Farmers of Oregon's second most valuable crop have dramatically scaled back burning since the 1988 tragedy, burning just shy of 40,000 acres last summer from north of Salem to Eugene. Management of smoke has improved. Alternatives to burning include spraying more pesticides.

But the Democratic-run Legislature is considering two bills -- House Bill 2183 and Senate Bill 528 -- that would ban the field-sanitizing practice. Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who worries about the smoke's effects on hearts and lungs, is behind the House bill.

The 2008 burns drew 463 complaints to the Agriculture Department.

The lobbying in Salem has featured worried doctors, growers who say the summertime health effects of the billowing gray clouds in the Willamette Valley are overblown, and the strong views -- on both sides -- of rural moms with young kids who live in the heart of the smoke zone.
Having been on the road in the Willamette Valley during burn-off season, it can be disconcerting and uncomfortable. There is the farmers' side to this:

. . . burning sterilizes fields quickly, helping ensure high-quality seed for the next growing season and controlling weeds, slugs and voles. It reduces the need for pesticides and fertilizer; cuts tillage, dust and erosion; increases yields; and takes less of a farmer's time than tilling fields with a diesel-spewing tractor.
This is yet another example of producing commodities as cheaply as possible without factoring in all actual costs. When we buy cheap goods in WalMart (or any place where 'low consumer sticker cost' is the only aim) we end up with other costs, like health care, quality of life issues being borne by all of us. We all suffer.

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