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Feds target wood stove smoke

This is just the kind of wood-burning equipment the government is worried about.
Northwest News Network
This is just the kind of wood-burning equipment the government is worried about.

TACOMA, Wash. – The cold nights we've been having are leading people to fire up their wood stoves and fireplaces. This also means we're in the season of the dirtiest air of the year in the Northwest.

Wood stoves are one of the biggest – if not the biggest – contributor to this problem in our area. Clean air agencies are going to greater lengths to pry old, polluting, uncertified wood stoves out of the fingers of homeowners.

Ahhh ... does the smell of wood smoke make you feel all warm and cozy inside? How about the satisfaction of cutting the chill without running up the utility bill?

But hey, the smoke might be making your neighbors sick, quite literally. People like Patty Conelly of Tacoma. She has asthma. Going outside in winter can make her seize up and choke.

"I wish that they would cut down on some of the wood burning in Pierce County and all over," Conelly says. "It would certainly help a lot."

Calls for crackdown

Conelly is one of dozens of people to vent on the public comment line at the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. The agency also hears from people who say now is not the time to crack down on wood stoves.

"Particularly during this economic downturn, any new rules about burning wood would impose an undue hardship and a disproportionate burden financially and realistically in a very physical sense," said one caller.
"All your ideas, keep to yourself and please leave people alone, alright," demanded another.
"Probably you guys need to get me a job and pay my electric bill so I don't have to burn the wood," suggested a third. "That's my idea."

Rebates and incentives

For two decades, federal, state and local agencies have been trying to curtail smoke from older, highly polluting wood stoves and fireplace inserts.

"Those levels build up when we have an inversion. They can cause lung issues. They can cause heart attacks, strokes," says Craig Kenworthy, executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

His agency and others have long offered rebates and incentives to upgrade to cleaner heat sources. For example, $1,500 to rip out a wood stove and put in a gas or oil furnace.

But progress is painfully slow.

"We've changed out 1,200 of the older, more polluting devices in the Tacoma-Pierce County area," Kenworthy says. "There are 24,000 of them still in the area, so that gives you some sense of the scale. You really have a scale question of needing to move forward and having a greater emphasis on getting to those cleaner devices."

In other words, stiffer measures are needed. Similar scenarios are unfolding all around the region.

Making the switch in Tacoma

In the greater Tacoma area this winter, the incentives for change outs more than doubled to get wood burners to switch to natural gas or electric heat. A task force also recommends stepped up enforcement of burning restrictions when there's stagnant air.

The Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency has just started a reward – or bounty – for people who turn in an old, polluting wood stove. Spokesman Dave Caprile says the agency hopes to head off people looking to make a quick buck by illegally reselling an uncertified stove on Craigslist, for example.

"If they're expecting $200 to $400 for an uncertified wood stove as a sale item, realize they can't do that, at least we'll be able to provide them something to kind of help them over that," Caprile says.

The consolation prize or reward they're offering: $100.

The Oregon way

Meanwhile, Oregon is trying a different tack. Oregon has become the first state in the nation to require home sellers to remove the older, polluting kind of wood stoves if one is present at the time of sale.

Klamath Falls Realtor Terry Nash says buyers appreciate it and sellers are coming 'round to their new obligation.

"As always, the first couple times when you ran into somebody, it was a little... 'Wait a minute, I paid a lot of money for that stove.' You say, how long ago did you buy that stove? 'Well, it's been 20 years.' You say, 'Well then, you've gotten your money out of the stove. It's time to have it removed.'"

Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality reports to date 466 wood stoves have been removed statewide due to the new change out requirement at time of sale of a home, which took effect in 2010.

Other tactics

Earlier this year, the Washington Legislature briefly considered, but then rejected a similar proposal to require any "uncertified" wood stove or fireplace insert to be removed when a home is sold.

Idaho offers a state tax deduction for upgrading to a cleaner-burning heat source.

Finally, something clever and low tech from another place that knows about dirty air in winter. Fairbanks, Alaska just received a $70,000 grant from EPA to launch a firewood exchange. Bring in a cord of wet wood and soon you can go home with a cord of cleaner burning dry wood.

This story is part of a public media collaboration that includes KCTS-TV, InvestigateWest, and public radio stations across the Northwest.

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Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.