2010 May 16: CA Chico (Butte County) (OR Oregon mentioned): A Burning Issue: Finding solutions – Butte’s first venture into wood stove vouchers went fast
Butte County’s clean air experts recently scraped together $20,000 for a program to help pay residents using wood heat to buy cleaner-burning stoves. They knew that such change-out programs have successfully reined in wood smoke pollution in other California communities, and that as air grows cleaner, human health can improve. That would be welcome in the Chico area, where doctors blame smoke from an estimated 15,000 stoves for aggravating asthma and chronic lung disease.
So officials announced that a limited number of stove vouchers would be given out one March morning at the Chico office of the Butte County Air Quality Management District.
The vouchers went in a flash. The line was so long when the doors opened that some residents had to be turned away. The $20,000 equated to 27 vouchers with different values depending on a person’s income.
Just 200 miles north in Klamath County, Ore., residents are awaiting a new stove voucher program of their own, paid for with $900,000 in federal funds. Oregon officials sought and received a total of $2 million in federal stimulus money to be earmarked for wood stove change-outs — enough to buy an estimated 600 cleaner-burning stoves.
"We’re the first in the nation to get this type of grant," said Rachel Sakata, air quality planner
with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, which worked with the state’s Department of Energy to obtain the funds. No such money is headed for Butte County. The California Energy Commission is not using any of its $314.5 million from the federal stimulus package to replace wood stoves. It is focused on promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy, said Michele Demetras, a commission spokeswoman.
Even if Butte County officials were to call today to request some of that money,
their wood stove change-out program wouldn’t qualify, she said: "That doesn’t conserve energy. It’s an air quality issue." That approach helps highlight the sharp contrast between California and some other West Coast states when it comes to reducing wood smoke pollution and the health problems it can cause.
Scores of scientific studies have concluded that the particles contained in wood smoke are harmful to human health, aggravating chronic breathing problems such as asthma, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder.
The particles have also been found to speed up the heart rate, cause blood clots and lead to heart attacks and strokes.
The state of California is famous for leading the nation in many successful clean-air campaigns, targeting high-emission cars, diesel fumes, even second-hand smoke.
But it has largely delegated the problem of wood stove pollution to its 35 local air districts, including rural districts in Northern California where tens of thousands of people rely on wood fuel for some or all of their heat.
The reasons are complex.
One key cause is that the California Air Resources Board deals largely with sources of air pollution that move — including cars, trucks and railroad engines — while the local districts are responsible for so-called "stationary sources" such as wood-burning stoves.
"Most other states have only state level air agencies. California is different," said Lynn Terry, the state board’s deputy executive officer, in a written statement Thursday regarding other states’ blanket regulations and efforts.
"State law divides authority between local air agencies and the state Air Resources Board. Regulating residential wood smoke is a local program," Terry said.
Seventeen of the state’s 35 districts have enacted some kind of wood stove rules, according to E-R spot checks with the air districts. A few larger California air districts have rolled out major programs including the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento. Most restrict wood burning on days when pollution levels are high.
But some smaller districts have moved more slowly.
For instance, Butte County’s air board last fall rejected a plan for mandatory restrictions focused on non-EPA-certified stoves. Instead, it depends on voluntary measures.
The district has overseen $87,200 in grants for wood stove change-outs in the past five years.
By contrast, it has received $2.7 million since 1998, largely from the state, as part of a popular state program that pays to replace old engines with cleaner-burning ones in trucks, buses, ships, harbor vessels and other diesel-fueled equipment.
The county has no harbor or interstate highway, and that money has been used here primarily to replace engines in farm equipment, especially diesel-burning irrigation pumps.
Diesel exhaust is labeled a toxic air contaminant in California. During a Chico winter, however, wood smoke eclipses diesel fumes as a pollutant, accounting for nearly 50 percent of the tiny particles that caused Butte County to flunk federal air standards on 11 days this past winter.
Looking simply at weight, EPA scientists have calculated that the pounds of particular pollutants removed by changing out one old wood stove is equivalent to taking five old buses off the road.
"I’ve been asked by many folks, ‘Can we use that money for stoves?’" said Jim Wagoner, Butte County’s air pollution control officer. The answer is no. "But if we had that sort of program for the stoves, that would be great."
To pay for the March voucher giveaway, his office used civil penalties paid by local polluters rather than tax dollars.
A major state investment in wood stove change-outs is unlikely in the face of California’s continuing state budget crisis. Yet the state Energy Commission website was advertising last week that it still had $25.9 million remaining in its "Cash for Appliance" program, which offers vouchers to help trade up to more energy-efficient washers, refrigerators and room air conditioners. The agency has no similar program for wood stoves.
Yet a new wood-burning stove typically costs more than a new refrigerator. A cleaner-burning model certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can cost $1,500, $2,000 and more.
In the San Joaquin Valley, where wood smoke is a major source of wintertime pollution, air officials started mandatory no-burn days for some stoves in 2003 and beefed up restrictions two years ago. Stove vouchers there are popular.
The region could use the state’s help in funding more stove change-outs, said Jaime Holt, chief communications officer at the San Joaquin Valley Pollution Control District.
Maybe the state could help residents who can’t afford other forms of heat, she added.
"Some people use wood stoves because they can’t afford heating bills. They can go and drive 30 minutes to get wood," Holt said. "If we had a program that could help those folks who can’t pay utility bills …"
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Communities in cooler climates across the United States have struggled for decades to reduce chimney smoke. Their efforts speeded up in 2006 when the EPA tightened its rules on so-called "particulate pollution," tiny particles of the kind found in wood smoke and diesel fumes.
Under those new rules, Butte County flunked federal air standards on 11 days this past winter.
As more communities slash their particle pollution from all sources — whether trucks or stoves — scientists are reporting some good news.
As levels of polluting particles drop, certain health conditions can improve, some researchers say.
One of the best-known studies, published in January 2009 in the New England Journal of Medicine, examined life expectancy data and air pollution records from 51 metropolitan areas in the late 1970s and early 1980s, comparing it with data from the late 1990s and early 2000s.
During that time, air quality improved significantly nationwide because of the federal Clean Air Act and other laws. And as the levels of particles decreased, life expectancy grew, researchers found.
"A reduction in exposure to ambient fine-particulate air pollution contributed to significant and measurable improvements in life expectancy in the United States," they wrote.
One state that moved early to reduce wood stove particle pollution was Oregon, which launched a state stove certification program in 1986, even before EPA. It continues a statewide approach.
The Oregon Legislature passed a law last year requiring that when homes are sold in the state, any old, non-certified wood stoves must be removed and destroyed.
When a similar idea was floated in Butte County last year, local real estate agents objected, saying it could put a chill on an already sluggish housing market. In Oregon, state officials said they worked directly with the real estate community to win their support for the bill.
California recently added a wood stove measure to the state’s Green Building Standards Code requiring that in new homes, all wood-burning or pellet stoves must comply with EPA emission limits and any local rules.
But statewide rules on wood stoves are not the norm.
The state Air Resources Board did urge a statewide approach in a 2005 report to the state Legislature on indoor air pollution.
"Statewide measures to reduce emissions from wood stoves and fireplaces both indoors and outdoors … are highly desirable," the report states. "Such measures could have a major impact on improving both community-wide indoor and outdoor air quality in many areas of the state.
"Emission limitations, product redesign, product use restrictions, and improved venting can be used for reducing this type of pollution."
But no such measures ensued. In fact, a few recent bills attempted to curb wood stove regulations. One bill sponsored by state Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, would have prohibited government agencies from banning fireplaces and wood burning stoves in new and existing homes.
"The decision to have a fireplace belongs with the homeowner and not with some faceless agency. Individual choices like these are among our most basic freedoms and must never be trampled by bureaucratic regulations," Hollingsworth stated in a news release. His bill stalled in committee in April.
No such proposal is pending in Butte County.
The air district’s staff hopes to obtain funding so that it can offer more vouchers to local residents.
Some Butte County residents who obtained vouchers in March returned them after discovering they still could not afford a new stove, even with a $250 standard voucher or the $1,000 vouchers designed for lower-income applicants.
Odean and Deanna Griffin, a retired couple from Durham, used a $1,000 voucher to buy a new $1,400 new stove, but they did not anticipate the extra $1,400 charge for new piping, part of which went on a credit card.
"We probably wouldn’t have even thought about a new stove except for the voucher," said Deanna Griffin, 73, who is pleased her new stove gives off more heat and is easier to control than her older 40-year-old model. "But we’ll be happier when we get it all paid off. By that time, we’ll have the air conditioning on."
In Oregon, the $2 million in federal stimulus money will allow lower-income residents to be paid the full cost of installing a new stove, piping and all.
Deborah Schoch is senior writer for the California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting.