Feb. 22–Tacoma-area homeowners are stubbornly hanging on to their old, polluting wood stoves, despite increasingly lucrative enticements to upgrade to cleaner heat.
With just seven days left until its $650,000 wood stove replacement program expires, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency still has more than $400,000 to give away.
As of Friday, 265 homeowners had used the program to replace their old stoves or fireplace inserts this year, agency officials said, even though doing so could save at least $3,000.
Last year, a less generous program in a smaller geographic area attracted 469 homeowners, according to agency records.
Dave Kircher, manager of the agency’s air resources program, thinks the economy is mainly to blame for the chilly response. But he said he also thinks the number of people inclined to participate — even with the financial incentives — is declining.
"With our program, low- income people could get a basic stove without putting much, if anything, out of their pocket," he said. "Others might have to spend $2,000 or more. It’s really just a question of the ability of people to pay the amount of money that it takes to take advantage of the opportunity."
Based on U.S. Census numbers, the agency estimates "tens of thousands" of Tacoma-area households still rely on uncertified stoves, those manufactured before 1990, when tougher federal standards went into effect.
The agency’s portion of the wood stove replacement money comes from the state, but federal economic stimulus money has sweetened the pot considerably.
Late last year, Pierce County and the City of Tacoma received a total of $1.4 million in stimulus funds to entice residents away from wood heat and into greener options.
Low-income residents who replace stoves with heat pumps and add insulation could receive as much as $12,000 by combining various programs, said Clean Air Agency spokeswoman Amy Warren.
Tacoma is a magnet for government air pollution money because the Environmental Protection Agency has singled it out for dirty air. Much of the city is within a federal "non-attainment area" for ultra-fine particulate matter, otherwise known as soot.
Fine airborne particles have been associated with health effects ranging from burning eyes and runny noses to bronchitis, asthma attacks and even heart attacks and strokes.
Tacoma is the only city in Washington to be labeled a non-attainment area for fine particulates, a distinction that is not only unhealthy but also bad for business.
According to the Clean Air Agency, 63 percent of airborne particulates in this area come from fireplaces and wood stoves during the winter — when pollution typically exceeds allowable limits.
Motor vehicle emissions, which remain relatively constant through the year, contribute 16 percent of the pollutant load in the winter and 43 percent in the summer, when wood stove and fireplace emissions all but cease.
The EPA requires that non-attainment areas develop plans to lower pollutants. Tacoma needs to complete its plan by December 2012 and demonstrate it is meeting federal air standards by 2014, Kircher said.
Getting rid of old wood stoves will definitely be part of that plan, Kircher said, but at this point, no one knows exactly what the strategy will be.
Offering higher financial incentives is one option, he said, but so is forcing people to get rid of the old stoves. The Clean Air Agency has the authority to enforce compliance, thanks to a bill the Legislature passed last year.
"Tacoma doesn’t like to be painted as a community with bad air," Kircher said. "They’ve worked very hard to get rid of that perception, and they don’t want to have that coming back to them again."
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693