Wood burning debate cooled

LIHUE — Kauai isn’t the only place in the nation where smoke from wood burning has ignited debate.

Citing health concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency is pressing ahead with regulations to significantly limit the pollution from newly manufactured residential wood heaters. But some of the states with the most wood smoke are refusing to go along, claiming that the EPA’s new rules could leave low-income residents in the cold.

The regulations are different than what the Kauai County Council was considering before it deferred a bill Wednesday that would declare fireplace smoke that injures health a public nuisance and impose a $200 penalty on violators.

Kauai’s bill focused on already existing wood-burning fireplaces, while the EPA is focused on regulating new ones. Both are hot issues, and after the local bill was introduced last month, people packed the council chambers to sound off on it, both pro and con.

Councilman Gary Hooser, who introduced the proposal outlined in Bill 2573, said the deferral for an unspecified amount of time “will allow me and other councilmembers who are working on this to look at all the various options,” including what the federal agency is doing.

“We’re just going to take a pause and do that and then re-look at the whole issue,” Hooser said. “There are a lot of factors to consider like EPA rules and the Department of Health, who we continue to reach out to.”

The decision coincides with national headlines.

Missouri and Michigan already have barred their environmental agencies from enforcing the EPA standards. Similar measures recently passed Virginia’s Legislature and are pending in at least three other states, even though residents in some places say the rules don’t do enough to clear the air.

It’s been a harsh winter for many people, particularly those in regions repeatedly battered by snow. And the EPA’s new rules are stoking fears that some residents won’t be able to afford new stoves when their older models give out.

“People have been burning wood since the beginning of recorded time,” Phillip Todd, 59, who uses a wood-fired furnace to heat his home in Holts Summit told an Associated Press reporter. “They’re trying to regulate it out of existence, I believe, and they really have no concern about the economic consequences or the hardship it’s going to cause.”

Others contend the real hardship has fallen on neighbors forced to breathe the smoke from winter wood fires.

The EPA typically relies on states to carry out its air quality standards. But states may not be able to effectively thwart the wood-burning rules, because federal regulators could step in to do the job if local officials don’t.

“If the EPA wants to come in here and enforce it, come on in. (But) I’m not going to help them,” said Michigan state Sen. Tom Casperson, whose law barring state enforcement of the EPA regulations takes effect March 31.

About 10 percent of U.S. households burn wood, and the number relying on it as their primary heating source rose by nearly a third from 2005 to 2012, the latest year for which federal figures were available.

The EPA’s new rules, which are to be phased in over five years, apply only to new wood heaters and won’t force anyone to get rid of their older models.

The EPA estimates the restrictions will reduce fine particle emissions from wood heaters by nearly 70 percent. It says that will result in an average of one fewer premature death per day and yield about $100 of public health benefits for every $1 of additional cost to manufacturers.

The rules mark the first update since 1988 for indoor wood stoves, which include both free-standing models and ones that fit inside traditional fireplaces. The EPA also is imposing its first-ever emission mandates on wood-fired furnaces and outdoor boilers, which use fire to heat water that is circulated through pipes to warm homes.

Nine states and dozens of communities already had required cleaner emissions for outdoor wood-fired boilers before the EPA acted, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. The states objecting to the EPA’s standards include some of the biggest wood burners. Michigan tops nationally in fine particle emissions from residential wood burning in 2011, the latest year covered by EPA statistics.

Missouri and Virginia both ranked in the top 15. Bills to bar enforcement of the EPA regulations also are pending in Wisconsin and Minnesota, which ranked second and third, as well as in West Virginia. Disputes over wood heaters have sparked intense emotions and legal battles among neighbors.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fine particle pollution from burnt wood can get deep into people’s lungs, causing breathing troubles.

But burning wood can be cheaper for some rural residents than heating their homes with propane, oil or electricity.

Many of the largest manufacturers’ products meet the initial EPA requirements, but complying with the later phased-in rules could be more challenging. Manufacturers say some smaller companies may simply shut down.

Some critics of wood-fired heaters believe the EPA’s rules don’t go far enough. They note that, in real-world use, the heaters often expel more pollution than in laboratory tests.

On Kauai, Hooser said the deferral of his bill will help him and other councilmembers find a solution that a majority of them can agree with.

Some opponents of the proposal were concerned the law would impede traditional outdoor cooking practices and have other unintended consequences.

“We have to keep working on it till we do,” Hooser said. “Unless you have something that’s going to work and it’s acceptable for the majority, there’s no sense in moving forward with it — you have to rethink it.”

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Staff reporter Darin Morki contributed to this report

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