Tougher restrictions on wood burning stoves aim to curb soot

10/29/2015

A set of important tweaks to rules that govern how and when wood-burning stoves may be used in West Marin homes has been approved by the nine-county Bay Area Air Quality Management District, eliminating such stoves from all newly built residences and requiring homeowners whose sole source of energy is wood to upgrade or replace their stoves with devices certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before they can burn wood on winter Spare-the-Air days.

The district has also pledged to earmark $3 million in its budget to fund a grant program, projected to be rolled out next spring, that will pay half of the costs associated with changing out an old, non-E.P.A.-certified wood stove for an alternative method of household heating—a cost estimated at around $5,000 per stove. So far, the details of that program have not been determined, and a district spokesperson said on Tuesday that it is not clear yet whether even E.P.A.-certified wood burners would be offered as one of the eligible alternative options. 

The district’s original rules on wood stoves, adopted in 2008, allow residents for whom wood stoves are the only source of household heat to burn indefinitely on Spare-the-Air days, which otherwise trigger a 24-hour mandatory ban on all indoor and outdoor wood burning. On those days, there are more than 35 micrograms of soot per cubic meter, a level that numerous agencies including the E.P.A. and the World Health Organization have linked to lung and heart diseases after prolonged exposure.

Lasting from November through February annually, the most recent Spare-the-Air season totaled 23 days. During that time, the district received 442 complaints in West Marin and issued six violations.

The district singles out wood burning as the leading cause of wintertime air pollution, contributing to about a third of all air pollutants—including car exhaust—on cold, stagnant days.

Starting on Nov. 1, 2016, the new rules will grant burn exemptions for Spare-the-Air days only to residents who use a stove that meets new emissions standards passed by the E.P.A. in February. These standards call for increased fuel efficiency among catalytic stoves, non-catalytic stoves, hybrid stoves, single-burn rate stoves, pellet stoves and hydronic heaters. 

Additionally, district staff members this month requested authorization from their board of directors to pursue a plan that would end Spare-the-Air exemptions entirely by 2020.

Other changes to the rules include the prohibition of wood-burning stoves in new homes, permanent installation in all leased and rental properties by 2018 of a form of heat that does not burn solid fuel, a requirement for realtors to provide their clients with disclosure documents that list the health hazards of wood burning, and a three-minute limit for visible smoke.

The move has sparked a wide range of responses in West Marin, especially in the forested San Geronimo Valley, where heavy amounts of residential wood burning and a low-lying rural terrain that traps wood smoke like a cauldron force neighbors to feel the effects of each other’s wood smoke more acutely than in urban areas. As proof, since 2013 the district has operated a particulate monitor—called an aethalometer—in Forest Knolls that has recorded substantially higher soot emissions there than have identical meters located in Livermore, Oakland and San Jose.

In response to the revised rules, many valley residents are welcoming the salutary health effects expected from less smoke. Forty-year Forest Knolls resident Richard Gray said that he gave up his old Buck stove over a decade ago after it began to take a noticeable toll on his and his family’s health.

“People like me, who are elderly, are vulnerable to it,” Mr. Gray said. “And young children are very vulnerable to wood smoke as well.”

He hopes the district will incentivize heating technologies that utilize neither wood nor gas but, rather, solar-powered heat pumps. For several years, residents in the valley have had the option to take a $1,500 rebate from the county to replace their wood stoves. As of 2012, however, only 18 residents have taken that rebate.

But even with incentives, Lagunitas resident Aldo Tarigo doubts that wood burners will receive any economic benefits from switching out their stoves. Though his home has gas-fueled heat as well as a wood stove, Mr. Tarigo said it costs the same amount—$300—to heat his house with gas for one month as it would to do so with wood for the entire four-month winter season.

And it’s not just homeowners who may suffer financial losses. According to an economic report to the district, firewood vendors may face as much as a 20 percent decline in sales resulting from the new rules.

“I don’t know how it’s going to affect my business,” said Russell Wagner, a Forest Knolls resident who has sold firewood commercially in Marin County for about 20 years. “I may be looking for another job.”

Additionally, a large contingent in the valley resent what is perceived as the district’s gradual creep toward the complete abolition of wood burning, an activity viewed as a homely pastime and less damaging to the environment than burning fossil fuels.

“Burning wood is a renewable resource,” said Mr. Tarigo. “Burning gas is not.”

But some supporters of tighter wood-smoke rules disagree. Burning wood does exacerbate climate change, they say, and those who think contrary are thinking shortsightedly.

“Wood burning isn’t carbon neutral,” Susan Goldsborough, a 10-year Forest Knolls resident and the executive director of the environmental group Families for Clean Air. “A lot of people thought they were doing a good thing by using wood rather than petroleum. It’s hard for people to give up beliefs that they’ve held for a while.”

Allen Goldstein, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management and an expert on air pollution, said that soot does constitute a critical problem for particulate-matter pollution in the Bay Area. But he added that the refined rules impact local air quality and public health on a much larger scale than they affect global climate change.

“Wood can be managed as a renewable resource,” he said. “Burning less fossil fuel is good in terms of reducing climate change. But this rule is really about local air quality control and health.”

Regardless of conflicting opinion on the issue, questions remain as to whether the new rules will make any difference at all.

Jean Berensmeier, a member and former chair of the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group, said that the new rules did nothing to address the valley’s air quality problems because of ongoing exemptions for those without other heat sources. “Some valley residents are careful about this problem while others do not care about how their wood burning impacts their neighbor’s health,” she wrote in an email.

For her part, Ms. Goldsborough noted that the burden will fall on individuals and communities to decide whether they’ll accept the new rules or simply ignore them.

“It’s a wood-burning culture out here,” she said. “What the public will do, there’s no way to know.”