SALEM, Ore. (AP) - With her two preschoolers in tow, Stayton resident Stephanie Jorgensen tearfully pleaded with lawmakers to protect her children from the effects of those towering columns of smoke that rise up from Willamette Valley grass seed farms each summer.
"We don't want our children's lungs to be exposed" to the smoke, Jorgensen said. "We know that field burning can harm our children and create a lifetime of respiratory problems."
Jorgensen's plea came as the House Health Care Committee heard emotional testimony from both sides about Gov. Ted Kulongoski's plan to end field burning by Oregon grass seed farmers by 2011.
Grass seed industry officials said field burning accounts for an insignificant amount of particulate pollution. And individual farmers testified Wednesday that they don't suffer any ill effects when they're surrounded by smoke during field burns.
Eric Bowers, a fourth-generation grass seed farmer from Harrisburg, said he has had asthma since he was a small boy "and in all the years I have burnt fields I have never had field burning smoke cause me an asthma attack."
The phase-out plan being advanced by the governor is aimed at giving the industry time to find alternatives before field burning is outlawed in 2011. A separate bill pending in the Senate calls for halting the practice immediately.
Either way, backers of the bills say field burning threatens public health and needs to be outlawed. The bills are expected to produce one of the toughest environmental debates of the 2009 legislative session.
Spokesmen for Oregon's seed industry say field burning helps Oregon's growers maintain their competitive edge in worldwide markets by producing some of the purest grass seed available.
Oregon Seed Council head Roger Beyer said proponents of the bills haven't produced data to show how many people are made ill by field burning.
"It's all theoretical," Beyer said.
But people who live downwind from the field burns say that each summer, smoke intrusions from the fires force them to deal with choking smoke that makes it tough to breath and causes health problems for people who already suffer from asthma and other respiratory ailments.
Harrisburg resident Holly Higgins said she and her neighbors live in a "sacrifice zone."
"We are among the 84,000 Oregonians who are forced to breathe enormous amounts of field burning smoke every year," Higgins said.
The Western Environmental Law Center, which is working to end field burning, said there's no dispute that field burning smoke is filled with fine particulate matter that when inhaled deep into the lungs "can reduce lung function and even lead to premature death."
"Field burning is untenable because it imposes unacceptable risks to the health of residents in the Willamette Valley," Dan Galpern, a staff attorney for the center, said in prepared testimony.
The debate over field burning intensified after a 1988 chain-reaction traffic wreck near Albany that claimed seven lives after a field burn blazed out of control, enveloping Interstate 5 with dense smoke.
The public furor over the accident prompted the 1991 Legislature to approve a phased reduction of burnable acreage. Since the law was fully implemented, the number of acres burned each year has been limited to 65,000, from a high of 320,000 acres in 1972.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)