April 03, 2001 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Planned improvements in predicting smoke patterns will be the main topic of a public forum tentatively scheduled for May 2 by a Union County smoke management committee.

The forum is expected to take place during the evening, but a specific time and place was not set by the committee Tuesday.

The forum will give the public an opportunity to ask questions and make comments about smoke management proposals.

Committee members indicated that they will not recommend any changes to the existing county smoke management ordinance before the opening of this years agricultural burning season.

The committee will meet for a final discussion of its short-term goals at 10 a.m. April 17 in the countys Joseph Annex.

The goals identified by the committee Tuesday include adding a second nephlometer to measure the level of dust particles in the atmosphere; adding a second weather balloon to measure wind direction and speed; offering meteorology training to managers; sponsoring a workshop for growers, and placing information on the Union County Web site.

A nephlometer owned by the U.S. Forest Service and a weather balloon will be placed in Island City to supplement the information gathered by instruments in La Grande and Imbler. Volunteer observers in the outlying communities will be appointed by the county commissioners.

The committee eventually plans to print a brochure listing the precautions that people with health problems should take when smoke is in the air.

Growers who burn must pay a fee for a burning permit. A portion of those fees will be used to pay for additional equipment.

Pam Kleeman of the La Grande Air Quality Committee expressed concerns about enforcement.

Who will be in charge of telling the farmers not to burn? she said.

But Steve Henderson of the Imbler Smoke Management Center said a process is in place for notifying farmers that weather conditions are unfavorable for burning.

Thats been going on for years, he said.

The proposed short-term goals will cover only the burning season from July through September. The committee, though, will appoint a working committee to research ways to provide smoke information year around.

Union County Commissioner John Howard said it could take a year or longer to develop the year-around program because of the number of agencies involved in coordinating management. He said he would like to see the group begin meeting as soon as possible.

Establishing one year-around call center and setting permit fees will be among the tasks assigned to the working committee.

Kleeman said she had hoped that the committee would develop a 12-month program soon.

Alex Steenstra, a member of the faculty at Eastern Oregon University, reported that an unscientific survey organized last year by an economics class showed that many people are willing to pay a tax or a fee to stop agricultural burning.

Steenstra said that of the 80 people who responded to a survey, 83 percent said they would be willing to pay something to eliminate agricultural burning.

Sixty-four percent said they would pay a $20 tax or fee to eliminate burning, and 79 percent

said they would pay more for a house if there were no agricultural burning.

A second forum on the effects of smoke on health will be scheduled for another time. Some committee members said that discussing health issues during the

May 2 forum would take too much time.