July 15, 2001 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

City eyes solution to backyard burning, screamed the headline. That was June 21, 2000.

Well, here it is more than a year later and the issue isnt any clearer.

But things are heating up.

Some things have changed. Fewer people use woodstoves for heating their homes. The city has distributed 250 compost bins at a reduced price in hopes of providing one alternative. More bins have been ordered.

Meanwhile, the city has initiated various types of recycling programs, but none are mandated.

No easy solution appears in sight. A proposed ordinance to ban all backyard burning by April 1, 2002, was supposed to be discussed by City Council Wednesday, but the issue likely will be postponed indefinitely, City Recorder Sandy Lund said.

The City Garbage Service has asked us to delay the discussion indefinitely because they havent come up with a fee structure on an alternative to burning.

Lund said the city staff will recommend an indefinite postponement of the discussion.

Some indication of how city residents feel about open burning, recycling and composting were discussed in a survey conducted for the city by the Regional Services Institute.

The survey indicated about an even split on the burning issue, considering the error factor of the sampling, which had responses from 340 of the citys 12,327 people. The survey was distributed to 1,016 randomly selected households in La Grande.

Fifty-one percent indicated in the survey that they wanted to retain the status quo, which permits open backyard burning during April, May, October and November, with a permit from the fire department. But 32 percent of those who responded said they did not want to permit open burning at any time.

Twenty-two percent said they wanted to see a yard waste disposal program within the city and would be willing to pay a fee for that service. Some 54 percent of the respondents said they would support a curbside recycling program for a fee, while 46 percent would not support the fee program.

During the April 21 annual spring cleanup day, during which residents could haul yard debris to the Material Recovery Facility for no charge, 94 tons of material were left for recycling. The year before, the city, in addition to the clean-up day, had provided curb-side pick up on specific days, called Green Mondays, and that was also deemed a success. Green Mondays resulted in 30.6 tons of curbside material being picked up.

There is an annual fall leaf-disposal day.

But much of the issue appears centered on whether people should be allowed to burn in their backyards. Burn barrels have been outlawed in the city.

A city council advisory committee, the Air Quality Commission, has held various meetings and unanimously favors banning all backyard burning. Further, commission members contend the city survey is not a true representation of how the community feels since it is a small sampling.

Committee members state that burning in the city is unwanted because of the proximity of residents to each other, with some burn piles only 10 feet from other peoples homes.

The committee has concern for toxins, stating the composition of chemicals changes when they are burned and dispersed into the air that people breathe.

The commission feels that the respiratory health of the citizens should be the deciding factor and should prevail over convenience.

Opponents of the ban point to the low air quality readings of particulate matter monitored in La Grande over the last two years, saying that the particulate matter per 1,000 has been below 2.5 and that La Grande has had no violations during that period.

When the Air Quality Commission held hearings in May 2000, it invited all 300 burn permit holders in the city to attend and give input. Only seven people spoke in favor of keeping the existing open burning regulations.

Judging from the discussions at its May 2 meeting, the city council is divided on whether or when or if a ban on backyard burning should be instituted or whether a fee should be established for recycling.

But one thing is almost certain: the discussion is not over.