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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 with 6 Comments »
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.

Leave a comment Comments → 6
  1. derekyoung says:

    Forcing people to pay even if they’re not contributing to the problem is the kind of policy that gives regulation a bad name.

    Feels like you could reuse this line for a flood control district editorial.

  2. arbeenjo says:

    Typical government response: a problem involving less than 3% of days per year (10 days out of 365)requires an increase in the bureaucracy of 625% (12 to 75 smoke police)plus registration plus fees (taxes). I don’t know about you but generally I only fire up my fireplace and wood stove evenings… when it’s dark and I’m home from work. So these smoke police are going to be patrolling 24/7 even if they can’t see the smoke a night? Next thing you know they’ll want state of the art IR/night vision equipment to catch violators. Makes you wonder who’s blowing smoke up the public’s you know what!Time to disband the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and get rid of these government trolls.

  3. arbeenjo says:

    Just visited the PSCAA website only to find that they currently have 70 employees so going from 12 to 75 smoke police nearly doubles the agency. Now given that you have 58 admin types to keep tabs on 12 inspectors, how many admin types will they have to hire to keep tabs on 75 smoke police? This is how bureaucracies grow themselves: in the military it called “tooth to tail”. On top of that this agency overlaps Washington State and Federal clean air agencies…’s an additional unnecessary layer of government that is unelected and by the looks of it unaccountable to the citizens.

  4. alindasue says:

    Not only do people use wood stoves more during the winter – during the time of year that the temperature inversions seem to occur most often – but people who are inclined to do so are less likely to walk or bike to work or shopping. Some of them ride the bus during winter, but bus service has been severely curtailed due to budget cuts. I suspect that we probably would have just as much impact on the emissions and more benefit to our communities during those days if we instead took that money they’d use to hire 63 more enforcement agents (easily $2,000,000 or more) and put it into expanding public transportation services.

  5. arbeenjo says:

    Alindasue you have got to be kidding! Government run public transportation? What makes you think they run Pierce Transit any better than PSCAA? I’d estimate that 63 more smoke police and their attendant admin types would exceed a budget increase of more than $5M. You obviously don’t know how well government employees are paid. Additionally even if you spent that $5M on public transportation it would only increase Pierce Transit’s budget by about 4% annually….not even a dent in it. This isn’t a perfect world and I for one am not willing to fund government limitlessly to try and obtain a 100% utopia of everything……in the case of our air quality 97.26% (355 days a year out of 365) is good enough.

  6. alindasue says:


    I agree that it is quite likely that hiring 63 more smoke police could run up as much as $5,000,000 – but when speaking of funds that could/should be diverted to something else, it is best to estimate on the low side. The figure I came up with assuming 63 full time staff added at a modest $18 per hour was closer to $3,000,000. If some of the new staff are part time… well, that’s how I came up with my “$2,000,000 or more” figure. Of course, I was only counting the added smoke police and not any added staff needed with such a large staff increase. Like I said, I was deliberately estimating low.

    $5,000,000 alone wouldn’t totally restore Pierce Transit service levels. However, since the emissions problem area is within the city itself where it costs considerably less per bus to provide transit service, that money could make a dent in the emissions readings – without adding extra bureaucracy or punishing those who use wood to heat as an emergency heat source.

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