April 03, 2001 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

La Grande is about to come to grips with several issues revolving around open burning and recycling.

City residents are recycling more and enjoying it more. But its costing them more in the form of the money the city must pay City Garbage Service for providing the service.

April 21 has been set as this years Spring Cleanup Day. The popular event allows La Grande residents to dispose of yard debris free of charge. The city foots the bill.

Meanwhile, the city is looking into some other issues involving recycling.

One is whether or not to add a fee of $1.50 or $2 to the rate charged by City Garbage Service to cover the startup of a recycling program that would be on a regular, ongoing basis. As it is being discussed now, the fee would apply to all City Garbage Service customers, whether they recycled or not.

Another topic of discussion deals with whether to continue to permit backyard burning during certain months or ban it altogether.

The Air Quality Commission has voted unanimously to recommend that the city council adopt an ordinance totally banning open burning of yard debris.

Open burning has been a concern since La Grande was designated a non-attainment area by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in 1987. About 300 people get burning permits each year, according to the commission.

Both the recycling and the burn ban issues were discussed Monday during a work session of the city council and the Air Quality Commission and are scheduled to be aired further during the May 2 council meeting.

The two issues are tied together, city officials feel, since the more people recycle, the less they are likely to burn.

There are strong feelings on both sides of the burning issue, said City Manager Wes Hare. He would not predict how the council would vote on a burn ban.

Of 340 residents who responded to a survey, 49.1 percent favored the status quo, allowing open burning during April, May, October and November. Twenty-one percent were against residential burning if an alternative yard waste disposal program could be established for a fee. Ten percent were against open burning at any time. The Air Quality Commission questioned whether the survey was a true representation of the publics views, considering the small number of responses.

The commission is concerned about people burning so close to other residences and about the amount of chemicals in the vegetation that might be burned and the resulting toxins that might be dispersed into the air as a result.

Meanwhile, citizens are doing more recycling on the Cleanup Day.

In 1999, Spring Cleanup Day cost the city $1,225 and served 420 residents. The result was 1,303 cubic yards of debris weighing almost 163 tons delivered to the Fox Hill Landfill.

Last year, the amount disposed of totaled 43.5 tons. At a cost of $40 per ton, that drove the citys bill to $1,740.

A factor raising the price to dispose of the debris is new environmental regulations. Before last year, people were allowed to take debris to the Fox Hill Landfill. Then last year, people were required to take their debris to City Garbage Services Material Recovery Facility at 3412 Highway 30 east of La Grande, where it is ground up. The process resulted in last years higher costs.

If the average number of customers (279) use the program this year, there will be between 68 and 102 tons of debris, City Garbage Service has estimated. At $40 a ton, that will cost between $2,730 and $4,080, according to Community Development Director Mike Hyde.