Insurance companies for northern Idaho grass farmers have agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by area residents over pollution from growers’ annual field burning.
The amount of the settlement hasn’t been announced, said an attorney for most of the 70 farmers, but the insurance companies will put the money into a fund to pay claims to eligible people with respiratory problems who live in northern Idaho or Spokane County in eastern Washington.
The agreement covers damages for the 1999, 2000 and 2001 burn seasons. In 2002, the Idaho Legislature passed a law prohibiting lawsuits against farmers for field burning, if the farmer followed state smoke-management rules.
Washington prohibits burning grass fields but the practice is allowed in Idaho. Some Kentucky bluegrass farmers have maintained they must burn their fields to shock the soil into producing a strong crop the following season.
“Ultimately, this practice needs to stop in north Idaho,” Brent Walton, a Seattle attorney representing residents in the class-action lawsuit, told the Spokesman-Review newspaper.
Coeur d’Alene attorney Peter Erbland, who represents 50 of the farmers who were sued, said many growers were unhappy with the settlement decision because they felt they were winning the case.
“The decision to pay is the insurance companies’ not the farmers’,” said Erbland.
Bluegrass farmer Wayne Meyer said he and a group of other farmers had wanted the insurance companies to give them the money to continue the legal fight, rather than settle.
“I felt that I hadn’t done anything wrong,” said Meyer, a former Idaho lawmaker. “I was legal under the law. And yet I’m paying for damages.”
As many as 40 farmers in Kootenai and Benewah counties are expected to burn fields this year, starting at the end of July and August.
The leader of an organization that advocates against field burning on behalf of northern Idaho and eastern Washington residents was pleased by the settlement.
“It’s a very positive step forward for public health in north Idaho,” said Patti Gora of Safe Air For Everyone.
The settlement means only one defendant remains in the lawsuit pending in 4th District Court – the North Idaho Farmers Association, an organization that represents grass growers. On Thursday before retired District Judge William Woodland, the association’s attorney Don Farley argued the group should be dismissed because it “didn’t own any bluegrass fields; we didn’t burn any bluegrass fields.”
Woodland took the motion to dismiss under advisement and indicated it may be several weeks before he rules.
Opponents of field burning have also sued the state of Idaho for negligence and claim the state is “taking” their private property by allowing smoke from the fields to make their homes inhabitable.
That case is proceeding, but Erbland said ultimately, residential growth in northern Idaho may phase out field burning.
“As a practical matter, the land values on the Rathdrum Prairie are causing some of the farmers to voluntarily give up that right anyway in favor of selling property,” he said. “I think there’ll be a dramatic reduction in noticeable emissions because of that.”
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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