2010 Feb. 8: MN St. Paul: IGH wood burners under fire

8/2010 3:05:00 PM  Email this articlePrint this article 
IGH wood burners under fire
Homeowner claims ‘poison’ air

Danielle Cabot
Review Staff

An outdoor wood burner nestled on a five-acre property in the southeast corner of Inver Grove Heights sent neighbors on Albavar Path packing to the city council Jan. 25 as though, well, they’d been smoked out.

Residents Armando and Nancy Lissarrague live on five acres next to a property that was purchased by the current owners in 2003. About 2 /2 years ago, Doug and Vivienne May, the Lissarrague’s newest neighbors, set up an auxiliary structure for woodworking, and installed a wood-burning furnace for their energy needs about 90 feet from the Lissarragues’ property line.

An outdoor wood-burning furnace, or an outdoor wood boiler, burns wood in a controlled combustion chamber resembling a small shed. The energy produced can heat water sent through underground pipes to heat a building, or be connected to a forced-air system. Smoke is released through a chimney attached to the chamber.

However, the "OWB"s can vary in efficiency, with the least efficient models producing volumes of smoke every day that can hover over the ground like a fog. More efficient models limit the amount of smoke produced, but burn through wood fuel more rapidly.

More than a dozen show
Since the day the wood burner started running, Armando told the council, his property has been clouded in smoke at times, and the smell has permeated his home. He said the smoke has affected the health of his family, as two of his four adult children use the home as a permanent residence. He said the particulate matter has affected his family’s allergies and caused respiratory problems such as more frequent colds. In addition, he was diagnosed with coronary heart disease in 1999 and should not be breathing excess smoke, he says. "The air on our property is poisoning us," Lissarrague told the council.

Lissarrague and the 15 or so neighbors who came to the meeting to support him and his wife are armed with information on wood smoke compiled by groups such as the American Lung Association, which claims that nitrogen oxides, a gas released during combustion, and particulate matter, or tiny particles of pollution suspended in air or water, are linked to respiratory disease and irritation.

The Environmental Protection Agency also claims that wood smoke contains harmful chemical gasses, and the accompanying soot contains particulate matter so small that it can pass into the lungs and blood stream and create or exacerbate health problems for the respiratory and coronary systems.

Numerous groups and coalitions have formed across the country in recent years to take on the passage of ordinances or outright bans on OWBs to address health and quality-of-life concerns, including Take Back the Air, an Edina-based group whose president, Julie Mellum, spoke at the meeting.

In response to their grievances, Lissarrague said the Mays were willing to raise the height of the smokestack, but were not willing to move the burner farther away from the property line. The Mays did not return calls by the South-West Review requesting an interview.

Last straw
The additional height, however, was not enough. After the Mays kept the burner off for most, but not all, of the summer, it was fired back up when the cold weather rolled in. Armando said the last straw that convinced him to appeal to the city occurred in December. Armando’s wife Nancy, a special education teacher for District 197, has a therapy dog trained for use with school children. The dog must be thoroughly bathed and groomed before being allowed into the school, he said. The day before a therapy session, Nancy let the dog out for just a few minutes to relieve itself. "The dog came inside reeking [of smoke], just reeking something furious," said Armando.

Lissarrague describes himself as easy to get along with, and said he is not out to cause undue problems for others. Ultimately, the issue is one of being a good neighbor, said Armando. At this point, the smoke is a nuisance, he told the council, and as a nuisance, the city has a right to regulate it through local ordinance.

He suggested a few options available to the council, such as regulating the distance a burner may be installed from a property line, but pleaded with them to ban wood burners entirely. "Ban outright –this is a solution that anyone living next to a neighbor with an outdoor wood burner would champion."

Bans in other cities
Minnesota cities including Burnsville, New Prague, Princeton and Forest Lake have already passed ordinances restricting or banning wood burners.

The city council of Austin rejected a proposed ban on outdoor wood burners in December of 2009.

Wyoming and Eagan are considering ordinances.

Lissarrague’s neighbor Gerald Biesterveld was one of the neighborhood supporters in attendance. While the smoke dissipates before hitting his property, Biesterveld told the council that when walking in the neighborhood, "if the smoke is just right, it will take the wind right out of you."

Mayor George Tourville directed the staff to put the issue on the first work session agenda of March, at which time staff will present more information on the merits or drawbacks of developing an ordinance to limit or ban OWBs inside city limits.

Danielle Cabot can be reached at southwest@lillienews.com or 651-748-7815.

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