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Way too much crackdown for a few days of bad air

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Dec. 17, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
December 16, 2011 5:40 pm

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

On about 10 days a year, Tacoma and much of Pierce County fail to meet federal standards for “fine particulates.” That kind of air pollution is created by motor vehicles, as well as by burning wood in old, uncertified stoves, fireplaces and the open air – and it can pose a health threat for people with respiratory problems.

Those 10 or so days of poor air quality have given the region an unenviable distinction: It’s the state’s only “non-attainment area” for fine particulate standards.

Because the 10 days are most likely to fall during cold weather, when more people are burning wood to keep warm, wood-burning is the main target for regulators charged with improving the area’s air quality. The air police also know it’s easier to get people to burn less than to drive less.

The area’s spells of dirty air are cause for concern, action and education – but not the regulatory jackhammer that appears to be on the horizon.

A Puget Sound Clean Air Agency task force that has been studying the problem – and taking public input – is likely to recommend several strategies sure to win few fans in the region. Among them: Requiring wood-stove owners to register their stoves and pay fees based on their efficiency, increasing the number of burn-ban enforcement officers from 12 to 75, and fining anyone who hasn’t removed an uncertified stove by August 2015.

If adopted, those recommendations will go to the agency’s board and then to the state Department of Ecology, which will propose a plan to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA could accept the plan or decide that it goes too far – or not far enough.

The task force’s proposed recommendations ignore some key questions. First and foremost, at a time when budget writers are slashing everything from public safety positions to health care for children, how much support will there be for an additional 63 burn-ban watchdogs?

Also, there are many thousands of uncertified wood stoves and fireplaces in the region – many of which are never or rarely used. But even those who don’t use them like knowing that, should power go out for an extended period, they have a way to heat at least one room of their house.

If these residents never violate a burn ban, why should they pay fees just because they have an unused, uncertified stove in the house? And why should a homeowner who has already paid to install a more efficient stove have to pay anything at all?

If the goal is to get rid of uncertified stoves, a better tactic is to offer generous tax credits and rebates. Forcing people to pay even if they’re not contributing to the problem is the kind of policy that gives regulation a bad name.

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