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Blowing Smoke on Prescribed Burn Bill

Tom Johnson at NJ Spotlight wrote a story today on the “prescribed burn” bill that moved out of an Assembly Committee last week, see:  LAWMAKERS LOOKING TO KEEP WILDFIRES FROM SETTING NJ WOODLANDS ABLAZE

I testified in oppostion to that bill and wrote about it as well, see: NJ Forests and Air Quality At Risk From Pending Legislation (scroll down for prescribed burn bill portion)

I sense that Tom is feeling a little burned by the GWB air monitoring story I worked with him on, and therefore felt somewhat reluctant to include my criticisms of the bill.

So, to clarify some of the issues that were muddled in that Spotlight story and to keep his readers informed about the serious flaws in the bill, I fired off this comment (which isn’t going to make me any more friends over at Spotlight!):

The NJ Forest Fire Service already has requirements in place for prescribed burns, which require a plan prior to execution:

http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/fire/prescribed_burning.htm

The big changes made by the Dancer bill (A1275) are: 1) to reduce liability standards for those conducting burns; 2) to narrow common law nuisance and trespass to exempt smoke from burns; 3) to allow Fire Marshall to conduct burns on private property without the private landowner’s consent; and 4) to exempt prescribed burns from the the State Air Pollution Control Act [and eliminate DEP’s ability to enforce air pollution violations, no matter how much smoke results from a burn and what the impacts are on air quality and public health].

Private conservation groups testified that they would like to conduct prescribed burns on their property, but can not do so because they can not get insurance. They can not get insurance because burns are dangerous and risky business.

The bill would alleviate that “problem” by reducing liability standards and harming victims’ ability to be compensated for any damages caused by a prescribed burn that got out of control. THAT REDUCES SAFETY INCENTIVES AND IS NOT IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST.

[The death of a fireman during a prescribed burn last year at round Valley Reservoir sheds new light on these risks, see: Prosecutor: Thick smoke blinds driver who hit, killed N.J. fireman at Round Valley].

I am no private property rights advocate, but the notion that the State Fire Marshall can trespass on private property and conduct a burn on that property without the consent of and even over the objection of the private landowner is absurd.

Last, the bill would expand burns to north jersey forests, where the ecological rationale is far weaker than in the Pinelands and where air pollution, public health, safety, and nuisance impacts are greatly magnified due to high population density nearby.

Do the residents of north jersey know that the State – or even private landowners – could conduct burns that smoke you out of your home or send your children to the hospital with an asthma attack and you would have no recourse to stop that burn or to sue to recover damages you suffer?

This bill needs to be limited to the Pinelands and the liability, common law, and air pollution provisions eliminated.

BTW< Tittel OPPOSED the bill in testimony before the Committee.

BTW #2 – The Farm Bureau is dead wrong on how DEP is supposed to manage risk.

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