2010 March 28: NY Olean (Allegheny County): Boiler debate burns

2010 March 28: NY Olean (Allegheny County): Boiler debate burns
 
Sunday, March 28, 2010 9:38 PM EDT
Boiler debate burns
By Julia Sampson
Olean Times Herald

 
 

The monolithic structure stands sentry against the chill of winter, a bone of contention amongst neighbors in both New York and Pennsylvania.

Outdoor wood boilers stand approximately 4 feet wide and 8 feet high, including the height of the chimney. This freestanding combustion unit, located outside the home to be heated, is not regulated by either New York or Pennsylvania state governments. Additionally, according to a report filed by the New York State Office of the Attorney General’s Environmental Protection Bureau, as of 2007, there are 2,640 outdoor wood boilers in New York state.

The village of Allegany passed a moratorium March 2, 2009, banning the use of outdoor wood boilers and extended the law, at a recent board meeting, until Sept. 9, 2010.

According to the moratorium, the village board of trustees is concerned about the effect on air quality and public health that may occur as the result of the unregulated use of outdoor wood heaters and boilers.

Additionally, because neither federal nor New York state regulations limit emissions or address the proper use of outdoor wood-burning devices, the board, pending further study and the adoption of a comprehensive local law, found it necessary to take appropriate measures to protect the public interest.

Yet, included in the Environmental Protection Bureau report, the boilers emit, on a per hour average, four times as much fine particulate matter pollution as conventional wood stoves. That’s 12 times as much as Environmental Protection Agency-certified wood stoves; 1,000 times more than oil furnaces; and 1,800 times more than gas furnaces.

Also, according to the report prepared by Judith Schreiber, chief scientist, and Robert Chinery, environmental scientist with the state attorney general agency, such emissions can have both short- and long-term health effects on respiratory and cardiac health. Additionally, neighbors who are downwind of such units may be exposed to highly elevated levels of the particulate matter.

Cattaraugus County Environmental Health Director Eric Wohlers said the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation drafted regulations in 2008, but the regulations have yet to come out of committee.

“While communities throughout New York have passed regulations and ordinances, there currently aren’t uniform regulations for outdoor wood boilers,” Mr. Wohlers said.

Conversely, the town of Portville vehemently opposes any regulations concerning the units.

“We do not necessarily disagree with your proposition that there are some health and environmental effects caused by particulate emissions,” Supervisor Terry Keeley wrote in a letter of response, dated Dec. 17, to Cattaraugus County Public Health Director Dr. Kevin Watkins.

“However, taking away this heating method without a comparable economic alternative would be tantamount to euthanizing many of these households because they do not have the money to pay for other heating methods,” Mr. Keeley wrote.

The Cattaraugus County Health Department proposed an ordinance requiring use of only EPA-certified models; inspection by the local code enforcement officer to ensure proper installation, adequate separation from neighboring homes, and prudent stack heights; and enforcement to ensure that outdoor wood boiler owners use only dry, seasoned wood as fuel and do not burn household trash, plastics or anything else that would emit toxic chemical residues.

However, according to an EPA exemption letter provided to an outdoor wood boiler manufacturer, the boilers are “designed to be installed outside of the home, and to heat by an indirect method, and are exempt from the EPA regulation(s).”

Additionally, because the EPA does not currently regulate the manufacture, sale or efficiency claims attendant to the boilers, they are not subject to the federal regulations governing indoor stoves and fireplaces. Those units are tested and regulated by the EPA for safety, emissions and efficiency.

The basic design of an outdoor wood boiler causes fuel to burn incompletely, or smolder, according to the Environmental Protection Bureau report, which also stated that even when operated using clean, seasoned wood, burning may result in thick smoke and high particulate emissions. Additionally, the short chimney and reduced draft often fail to disperse the smoke, thereby releasing pollutants at lower heights, which reach neighboring houses.

Outdoor wood boilers create smoldering conditions as they cycle through periods of high and low burn, said Environmental Protection Bureau officials. An efficient fire should produce clear exhaust during warmer months and white exhaust – steam – during colder months. An inefficient fire produces gray, black, or thick smoke. Furthermore, during summer months and calm winter days, wood smoke is slow to rise and disperse and can remain suspended in the air for long periods of time.

While New York holds no regulations specific to outdoor wood boilers, DEC regulations provide that “no person shall cause or allow emissions of air contaminants to the outdoor atmosphere of such quantity, characteristic or duration which are injurious to human, plant, or animal life or to property, or which unreasonably interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property.”

Furthermore the DEC smoke regulation states, in part, “no person shall operate a stationary combustion installation which exhibits greater than twenty percent opacity, except for one six-minute period per hour of not more than 27 percent opacity.”

Due to resident complaints, the report noted, the DEC has taken enforcement actions involving outdoor wood boiler owners on some occasions base on those regulations.

Allegany Town Supervisor Patrick Eaton said, “We’re a rural area. Why ban outdoor wood boilers? Once you start banning things, you get into government control.”

(Contact reporter Julia Sampson at jsampson@oleantimesherald.com)

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