Field Burning Study Questioned

Article excerpt

Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

Researchers hope to answer this hot question: Does the field burning smoke that billows in the Willamette Valley skies each summer really hurt the people who catch a lung full of it?

The $94,000 study by Oregon State University researchers doesn't even start until October, but the critics already are asking whether the study will yield objective, scientific results given the study's genesis. The study is being funded with money from grass seed farmers who burn their fields.

State Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, said the link to the industry raises questions about the study's validity. "There's an interest of OSU to come out with a finding that's conducive to the grass seed industry, because they get money from the grass seed industry," said Holvey, a critic of the field burning. "It does cast a shadow in my mind that this particular study may - or may not - be totally unbiased."

But OSU toxicologist Dave Stone, one of two researchers doing the study, said the upfront agreement is that nobody gets to influence the results. "We've been pretty honest that the numbers fall where the numbers fall. Our job is not to massage numbers at all," he said.

The researchers find themselves working in a maelstrom of controversy surrounding the practice of some grass seed growers of torching the grass stalks after the seed crop is harvested.

Citing studies that link breathing smoke with reduced lung function, heart attacks and - in rare cases - death, Holvey sought a ban on field burning this year, first from the Legislature and later from the state Environmental Quality Commission.

The Legislature failed to act on Holvey's ban proposal.

The environmental commission, which has the authority to issue a ban based on health dangers, said last month that it lacked enough information about the health hazards of breathing the smoke to act. The commission instead decided to ask the Legislature for money for the state Department of Environmental Quality to conduct a study.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Agriculture launched the plan for the OSU study - to be funded with fees the state collects from the minority of valley grass seed growers who still burn their fields.

The study will use existing data on smoke concentrations and health effects to assess the risk to people encountering field smoke under several different scenarios. It will calculate the odds for cancer and non-cancerous health problems, such as lung irritations and illnesses.

The results could help the EQC make its ruling on the potential dangers of field burning, DEQ air quality official Andy Ginsburg said. "If they do the study right," he said, "it could help move the ball down the court."

But critics say a unit of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences may not be the best place for research on health effects of an agricultural practice.

"Why wasn't this put out for a public bid?" said Dan Galpern, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center in Eugene. "If you're going to do a study on this important public issue, there should be some confidence in those who are going to do the study."

John Byers of the Oregon Department of Agriculture said the researchers proposed the study and won support for their proposal.

Deepening the skepticism was a report in the last Legislative session by state Rep. …