Thursday, January 22, 2015

As Utah debates seasonal stove ban, Salt Lake County adopts stricter rules

The proposed state seasonal
ban affects 75% of the Utah
population. 
As Utahns debate a seemingly doomed proposal to ban seasonal stove use,  Utah’s most populous county enacted its own rules banning stove use on both mandatory and voluntary air actions days as of Jan. 1, 2016. In other counties, voluntary air action days continue to be voluntary.

This will impact about half of all wood burning appliances in the non-attainment counties and could contribute significantly to reducing wood smoke.  Salt Lake County has nearly 102,000 wood burning appliances, with fireplaces accounting for a majority of that with 60,000 units, according to EPA figures.  There are nearly 20,000 uncertified wood stoves and about the same number of pellet stoves and certified wood stoves.  
This stove inventory was provided by EPA who use a variety of databases and sources to estimate the deployment of wood burning devices.
The governor’s seasonal ban proposal that would impact 7 counties in and around Salt Lake City is drawing intense and sustained criticism from Utah residents, with only a few people speaking up in support of the ban.  It's also drawing national attention from the wood stove industry that wants a 2-stage system, where EPA certified stoves could be used in stage 1 and all stove use banned in stage 2.

On the other hand, Salt Lake County, which has a more than a third of the state’s population and nearly half of the population and half the stoves in the Wasatch front non-attainment area, went the opposite direction, including all stoves, certified and uncertified, in both stages of air action days.  “This is a significant measure and with more enforcement could achieve a quarter to a half of the reductions that the Governor's plan sought,” said John Ackerly, President of the Alliance for Green Heat.

The issue has become an emotionally charged debate about individual rights vs. government control, striking a nerve within a deeply conservative part of the country.  In the public hearings, many people have testified about not being able to afford any other fuel than wood, and not wanting to be forced to use fossil fuel when they can use a cheaper renewable. 

But for air quality officials, the issue is simply about cleaning up the air and meeting federal air quality goals that are tied to highway funding.  The discussion quickly becomes about what the state can enforce and what it can’t.  The problem is that the state compliance capacity is already overstretched, with little ability to take on wood stoves.

However, that is different in Salt Lake County, which is moving ahead to enact stricter rules.  The County has decided to undertake the investigations of wood burning on mandatory no burn days itself, instead of leaving those to the state, which now only issues the fine.  Typically the initial warning is viewed an education process that leads to compliance, so that while many $25 fines have been given, rarely has the maximum of $299 been imposed. 

The new Salt Lake County rules, which take effect on Jan. 1, 2016, were not a reaction to the governor’s proposal or a rejection of the stove industry’s recommendations.  The County's process began before the state's process and ended before the stove industry got involved and helped set up the advocacy group Utahns for Responsible Burning.

According to officials at the Salt Lake Country Health Department, there was virtually no support for exempting EPA certified stoves from the county rule.  Both certified and uncertified stoves can produce excessive smoke, depending on operator behavior and moisture content of wood, with uncertified ones performing worse, on average.  While most EPA certified stoves produce 2 to 4.5 grams of particulates an hour in the lab when they are tested with specially prepared dry wood, they often produce far more in the real world.

The Alliance for Green Heat is urging Utah officials to consider phasing out uncertified stoves, since reducing the number of wood stoves will have the biggest impact.  “It may be that only about half of wood burners are really burning responsibly, whether they own a certified or uncertified stove,” Ackerly said.  “The uncertified stoves made before 1988 are now obsolete and most should not be used in densely populated areas,” Ackerly continued.

The current debate over wood heating comes less than 2 years after the outdoor wood boiler industry fought against Utah regulations that would prevent the installation of wood boilers on the Wasatch Front.  That debate also brought national attention of industry who hired lobbyists in Utah.  The industry effort to keep the market for outdoor boilers open in the non-attainment area was partially based on the now discredited argument that outdoor boilers were cleaner than wood stoves.

That case, like the current debate, involved questions of emissions data from test labs vs. emissions in the real world, and the likelihood that operators would be burning responsibly.