WELT: It was choking, pungent, acrid odors.
GELLERMAN: Jeff Welt lives 500 feet down the road and downwind from the Morin home and their outdoor wood boiler:
WELT: We were smelling pretty heavy fumes, I mean it would wake us up at nights, we’d have headaches, there’d be nausea. So we can’t keep our windows open. We do a lot of things traditionally, like hang our clothes out to dry – we don’t like to use a dryer – stopped doing that. We have a big garden back here, and we were really concerned last year about whether we should be eating food out of the garden.
GELLERMAN: Good fences may make good neighbors but when it comes to wood smoke from outdoor boilers, Jeff Welt found, fences aren’t much help.
WELT: And then my neighbors started calling, the neighbors who live up and down the street, and they pass here on the way to work or they jog by or something, and they’re saying it’s gross.
WELT: People are not allowed to dump poison waste on my property. They’re not allowed to poison the water that we drink. But meanwhile they’re contaminating, poisoning the air that we breathe. That shouldn’t be allowed.
GELLERMAN: But in most places wood boilers are allowed – and their number is growing dramatically nationwide.
RECTOR: We saw an exponential growth as oil prices began to rise.
GELLERMAN: Lisa Rector is a senior policy analyst with NESCAUM, the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, which represents air quality agencies in six states. Just three years ago, Rector says, there were about 150 thousand outdoor wood boilers in the United States. Today there are a quarter of a million and she predicts the number will soon double.
RECTOR: We estimated that, left unchecked, and sales trends continue there would be half a million in place in 2010.
But burning wood can also be deadly.
RECTOR: A lot of people think of wood smoke as that smell of Christmas. But in general, actually wood smoke is a fairly toxic substance.
GELLERMAN: Lisa Rector of NESCAUM says wood boilers are by far, the dirtiest way to heat a home.
RECTOR: One outdoor wood boiler, the emissions, the PM emissions, the particulate matter emissions from these units is equivalent to 205 oil furnaces and three to eight thousand natural gas fired furnaces, or it’s equivalent to about 50 idling diesel trucks. So it’s like having a truck stop in your backyard.
GELLERMAN: Rector says particularly troubling are the fine microscopic particles in smoke, specks so small they can lodge deep in your lungs.
RECTOR: Those particles, even if your doors are closed, your windows are closed, they’ll still find their way into the house. Those particles cause cardio-pulmonary issues, asthma. They can be especially be of risk to sensitive populations such as children, the elderly, those with asthma. So wood smoke is not a benign substance. It is actually the largest sources of fine particles in North America today.
GELLERMAN: Fine particulates in the air kill 60 thousand Americans a year – more than die in auto accidents. And besides fine particulates there are other toxic pollutants in wood smoke and creosote which builds up in smoke stakes, volatile organic compounds, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and dioxins, some known carcinogens.
GELLERMAN: Armed with this information, Jeff Welt in Brunswick, Maine, who lives near a wood boiler, decided to take action.
WELT: Twenty of my neighbors signed a petition that we sent to the state, saying it’s adversely affecting the enjoyment of the neighborhood. You know – do something about it.
GELLERMAN: But there was nothing the State of Maine could do. Back in 2006 when Welt complained to state officials, there were no laws regulating outdoor wood boilers – not federal, state, or local. Wood boilers pit neighbor against neighbor and town against town. As the number of wood boilers increased, so did complaints. Lisa Rector of NESCAUM fielded many of them.
RECTOR: In many cases, and I’ve heard of them personally, people have called me looking for help. They’ve gone to their local town officials, their state officials, and there really is no regulatory avenue to address these.
GELLERMAN: Jeff Welt convinced officials in Brunswick, Maine, to pass an ordinance limiting wood boilers. New ones were banned in Brunswick, but old ones were allowed to remain, their use restricted to winter. A few other towns in Maine also approved ordinances restricting wood boilers, but most didn’t, and Lisa Rector says, people in those places affected by wood boiler smoke, had little recourse:
RECTOR: So they are required to either live with the situation, move, or bring a lawsuit and try to address it through private party nuisance lawsuits.
BETH THOMAS: And I said I’m not suing my neighbor. I’m not going to do that.
GELLERMAN: In fact, Beth Thomas of Bowdinham, Maine, wound up doing precisely that. She sued her neighbor over an outdoor wood boiler. Thomas, her husband and 2 small kids lived on the outskirts of town. It’s just north of Brunswick, which had restricted wood boilers – but Bowdinham still allowed them. The Thomas family lived downwind from a commercial laundry that used an outdoor wood boiler 24/7.
BETH THOMAS: I would be out in garden getting these headaches, intense headaches, and it would get hard to breathe. And if it were really bad, and the creosote-based smoke was coming into the house itself, which happened frequently, I would just put the kids in the car and go.
GELLERMAN: So, what did you do?
BETH THOMAS: What did I do. I called everybody I could find that I knew who might have some control or some information about this, and uh, from the Air Toxics to the Air Bureau to the – everybody – and the only thing people could say was, there’s a nuisance law – you can sue them. Or you can move – that was the other thing. You can move.
GELLERMAN: When Bowdinham residents voted to keep wood boilers unregulated, Thomas moved to Hallowell, Maine, a town that banned them. Hallowell is just south of the capitol, Augusta. There, Beth Thomas filed a complaint with officials demanding something be done on the state level to replace the patchwork of local ordinances. State lawmakers were reluctant to take up the issue.
BERRY: I couldn’t believe that burning wood could possibly be a health threat.
GELLERMAN: State Representative Seth Berry became an unlikely champion of state limits on outdoor wood boilers – his father has one at his home. But one whiff of a poorly run wood boiler was all Berry needed to change his mind.
BERRY: If you walk through a cloud of creosote smoke, you know it, and your friends know it for the rest of the week because you can’t wash it out of your hair.
GELLERMAN: Berry became a man with a mission. His colleagues in the Maine legislature began calling the freshman lawmaker: Boiler Boy. Berry held hearings – angry, contentious meetings that drew huge crowds.
GELLERMAN: Berry’s emergency bill – phasing in limits on emissions and where wood boilers can be installed was passed overwhelmingly by Maine’s legislature, and now Maine joins Connecticut and Vermont with laws regulating outdoor wood boilers. Ohio and other states are considering similar measures, and years ago, Washington State banned them all together.
And that’s what Maine representative Doug Thomas fears will happen in his state. Thomas was the major opponent to Seth Berry’s bill. And until it passed, he sold outdoor wood boilers.
DOUG THOMAS: I really don’t want to sell them anymore because, the way these regulations that Maine is writing are, it’s going to be complaint-driven enforcement. And so I might sell someone a six or eight thousand dollar wood boiler, and they’ve got another four or five thousand dollars to install them and they can’t use. I don’t want to do that to people. I’m not going to do it to people.
GELLERMAN: The federal government has been slow to respond to the wood boiler issue.