Health officials research permanent burn ban

Environmental scientist Jonathan Dutrow, left, and Orion Rogers, the director of Environmental Health at the Southeastern Utah Health Department, discuss the possibility of a complete burn ban in Grand County at Tuesday’s Grand County Council meeting. He stressed the idea is being researched and no decision is close to being made.
Photo by Doug McMurdo

A misworded agenda item needed to be clarified when the Grand County Council on Tuesday, March 19, discussed a proposal to make burning garbage unlawful.

“It is illegal to burn trash,” said Orion Rogers, the environmental health director of the Southeastern Utah Health Department. “It’s already illegal.”

Rogers made it clear he and Jonathan Dutrow, an environmental scientist at the department, were not at the meeting to seek approval to make it illegal to burn not trash or household garbage, but to ban burning lawn detritus. There is no imminent decision coming down the pike. The discussions are preliminary.

Current burn “windows” are from March 15 to June 1 and Sept. 15 to Nov. 15 or 30, said Rogers, but regulating the burns in a county as large as Grand has proved to be a struggle.

“People burn inappropriate stuff,” said Rogers. The current burn permits are for yard debris such as tree limbs and leaves. Instead, some burn Amazon delivery boxes and treated wood, such as railroad ties, said Rogers, who is working to minimize the negative impacts such burning causes to the vast air shed in the region that stretches from Grand Junction, Colorado to points west and north.

He briefly discussed a community composting system, asking council members if that were something they could support. Rogers said he will ask for support from other government entities.
He also said it would be necessary to acquire proper air monitoring equipment so people could be provided accurate information on air quality so there are “facts to back up” the need to stop burning instead of simply telling people not to burn.

Meteorologists in Grand Junction provide clearing index maps, which Rogers said helps his department determine how well or poorly smoke mixes with the atmosphere. In winter, due to burning and fireplace use, there is an inversion over the Moab Valley that isn’t healthy.
Council Member Mary McGann said she receives complaints from people who live in Spanish Valley. She said a resident in the area fills a large metal garbage bin with trash and burns it rather than pay tipping fees at the landfill.

Rogers said law enforcement is empowered to cite residents for illegal burning. McGann said it might be a good idea to make trash pickup mandatory in Spanish Valley. In any event, a citation isn’t going to keep particulates from an illegal burn going into the air. Rogers said burning trash in a barrel one time is equivalent to a 1,000-ton incinerator burning for a full day.

Council Member and Castle Valley resident Greg Halliday had a couple of concerns. “The problem I have is [the concern is about] air quality. Nobody thinks about the fire danger.” He said the department uses the clearing index to determine whether people can burn, but oftentimes the air is clear because the wind is blowing and that makes burning debris a fire danger.

Halliday also said there is “no way” people from Castle Valley or who otherwise live a good distance from Moab will transport their yard debris to town.

Answered Rogers, “This is just a discussion.” He said there is “solid science” behind the need to ban all burning and he suggested the focus should be on expanding resources and educational outreach in an effort to help people understand the reason behind the potential burn ban.