Clearing the Air– Fireplace Madness

Clearing the Air– Fireplace Madness
Photo by Natalie McNear via Flickr Creative Commons

By Tom Frantz

San Joaquin Valley residents may have noticed there are new air district rules this year for wood burning in fireplaces and woodstoves. There have been ridiculous ads on TV recently with these new burn options on cartwheeling signs: “NO RESTRICTIONS, BURNING DISCOURAGED,” “NO BURNING UNLESS REGISTERED” and “NO BURNING FOR ALL.” The new rules are confusing and somewhat contradictory. There is also a new program of monetary incentives being given to purchasers of cleaner wood stoves that is pure folly.

To begin, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (air district) now forbids burning in fireplaces and other wood-burning devices on any day when the 24-hour average for fine particulates is predicted to exceed 20 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3). The old rule forbade burning above 30 μg/m3. To understand this rule, it helps to know the national standards for fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) for which wood smoke is part of the problem.

There are two standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for PM 2.5. There is a daily limit and an annual average limit. In 1997, the standards for PM 2.5 were set at 65 μg/m3 for the daily standard and 15 μg/m3for the annual standard. In 2006, the daily standard was lowered to 35 μg/m3. In 2012, the annual standard was lowered to 12 μg/ m3. In fact, the more scientists study the effects of PM 2.5 the more they realize the need to lower the standards in order to protect public health. The old, the sick, the young and pregnant women (about 50% of the population) experience negative health effects from low levels of PM 2.5 in the 12 to 55 μg/m3 range. Everyone is harmed when breathing daily levels above 55 μg/m3.

It is also useful to realize that the San Joaquin Valley has not met the 1997 standards for both annual and daily levels of these fine particulates. The last year to meet these standards is 2015. Because the most recent three years are averaged to determine compliance, it is already a fact that these standards will not be met on time. Our wintertime air quality has actually worsened the past few years.

So, last year the air district adjusted the no-burn rule cutoff from 30 μg/m3 to 20 μg/m3 because it knew the 1997 annual health standard for PM 2.5 of 15 μg/m3 was not going to be met. At the least, the logical place to set the cutoff would be the 2012 annual standard of 12 μg/m3. In reality, the air district should have simply banned wood burning altogether. But when has the air district behaved in a logical or realistic manner in regard to the health of residents?

Next, the air district threw a monkey wrench into any chance of effectively enforcing its no-burn rule. Simultaneously, it ensured that fine particulate levels will actually be worse on most bad air days. Previously, no one could burn when levels were above 30 μg/m3. This year, it is 20 μg/m3 (even though it should be lower). The air district, in contrast, increased the level for lighting up EPA-certified wood stoves and now allows them to burn on days up to 65 μg/m3. This is absolutely insane because even though EPA-certified stoves and inserts are cleaner than non-certified, they still emit fine particulates and are just as dirty as any other stove when first lit. This is because they depend on catalytic converters that must be red hot before they are effective.

On the enforcement side, the air district inspector can no longer detect a violation by observation alone but has to check and see if the associated address with the smoke is registered with the air district. Residents used to be able to complain to the air district about wood smoke from a neighboring home but now they don’t have a clue if the smoke is from a registered stove or not. Citizen enforcement was the only solid way to get compliance with these burn bans, and that path has now been blocked. It would have been much simpler and more health protective to ban burning altogether and fine anyone whose home is emitting smoke.

Finally, the air district is actually paying people to convert their wood stoves and fireplaces to EPA-certified stoves and inserts. In other words, the air district is using valuable incentive money that could be used to clean up farm equipment or promote bicycle commuting to give people an opportunity to burn wood in their homes and pollute the air when fine particulate levels are well above current health standards. During 2014, the air district spent $7.7 million giving people money to help purchase cleaner burning (but not totally clean) wood-burning devices for their homes. Instead of simply banning wood burning and implementing a good enforcement program the air board felt the need to appease homeowners and woodstove dealers with money.

Some of the incentive money went as subsidies for people installing gas inserts in their fireplaces. That sounds good in theory, but what is the point if the use of those fireplaces has already been banned by the no-burn rule when the air is dirty? Home-owning residents staring at cold empty fireplaces in the winter should have to pay for the luxury of a gas-burning fireplace if they want one. The bottom line is 30 hearth and woodstove dealers in the Central Valley have recently shared a windfall $7.7 million that has stimulated at least twice that amount in new sales this past year. No doubt they will donate happily to the reelection campaigns of air board members in the future, but what has the public gained in terms of better health?


Longtime clean air advocate Tom Frantz is a retired math teacher and Kern County almond farmer. A founding member of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, he serves on the CVAQ steering committee and as president of the Association of Irritated Residents. CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health, environmental and environmental justice organizations representing thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley unified in their commitment to improve the health of Californians. For mo 


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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