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South Sound faces a reckoning over wood-burning

Post by Cheryl Tucker on May 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
May 6, 2011 6:04 pm

Wood smoke is a major air pollutant in the South Sound. (Staff file photo)

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

We do love our wood fires in the South Sound.

We savor the crackling sound and romantic atmosphere they create in our fireplaces. We enjoy the camraderie of gathering around an outdoor fire pit on a chilly evening. And we really like how burning wood can take the chill off the house on a cold night without running up the utility bill.

But that love affair is getting us a bad reputation. The unusually high number of people who burn wood – for whatever reason – is a big reason the Seattle-Tacoma-Olympia metropolitan region ranks 18th on the American Lung Association’s list of U.S. communities with the highest fine-particle pollution, which can pose a serious health threat to people with asthma and heart conditions.

It’s also why the greater Tacoma-Pierce County area is the state’s only “nonattainment area” – which means it persistently exceeds federal Environmental Protection Agency air standards. And unlike the lung association’s ranking, the EPA’s formal designation comes with consequences.

It means that state and federal regulators will be more insistent that the community take steps to improve air quality. When the biggest, controllable culprit is wood smoke, it’s not that hard to figure out what’s going to happen: Rules are likely to be tightened over who can burn, when they can burn and how they can burn.

The community can help come up with ideas in task force meetings scheduled to begin later this spring. The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency will hold a stakeholder process to get input on possible solutions to the area’s pollution problem. (See box for signup information.)

Addressing wood smoke is likely to be high on the agenda, if not No. 1. One idea might be to get tougher on burn-ban violations. During burn bans, people are only supposed to burn wood in their stoves and fireplaces if that’s their only heating source.

But the pollution problem here – as much as seven times what is typical in urban areas – suggests that a lot of people are heating with wood because it’s cheaper for them than electricity or gas, not because it’s their only source of heat.
Pollution monitors in residential areas spike during the evening hours, when people are more likely to burn wood for heat or just for the atmosphere that a log burning in a fireplace creates.

A lot of South Sounders have taken advantage of the PSCAA’s change-out programs that helps get rid of old, uncertified wood stoves. More than 1,100 have been replaced since 2007, but about 75,000 still remain, and the change-out funding ends June 30.

Residents can get as much as $8,000 to replace a stove with an electric heat pump, natural gas furnace, gas stove or fireplace insert if they live in certain ZIP codes. (See box for more information.)

Pollution related to wood smoke wouldn’t be a problem if this were a rural area. But it’s not – and it’s becoming even more densely populated each year. Wood-burners who don’t convert to more efficient, cleaner-burning stoves are having real impacts on their neighbors’ health.

The days are numbered for our love affair with wood smoke.

Learn more
To look into the wood-stove changeout program, which ends June 30, go to www.pscleanair.org/woodstove
or call 253-798-7369. To be informed of steps in the stakeholder process, sign up by email at CleanAirPierce@
pscleanair.org.

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