Tom Frantz

Fireplace Burning: Clearing the Air, October 2014

By Tom Frantz

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (Air District) is contemplating a change this summer to its fireplace rule, which is also known as District Rule 4901. The change will both reduce and increase the number of days in which residents can light wood-burning devices depending on the type of device.

The wood-burning season lasts from November through February. It is really the no-burn season because this is when the Air District issues orders prohibiting residential wood burning if its daily air quality prediction lands above a specific level for fine particulates (PM2.5).

According to an Air District survey, 80% of Valley residents are aware of the no-burn program and 78% of those people actually obey the order not to burn. This means one-third of the population is either ignorant of the program or chooses to ignore it.

The main pollutant from wood burning is the ultra-fine black carbon particles found in smoke. The federal Clean Air Act standards for fine particulate matter say the average concentration in a cubic meter of air during any 24-hour period must be 35 micrograms or less. Also, the average annual concentration for a monitored area must be 15 micrograms or less. There were 20-some days this past winter when the daily concentration was more than twice the 24-hour standard, and Air District cleanup plans have failed spectacularly to meet the 2014 deadline for the annual standard.

Failure to meet these PM2.5 federal standards is costing the Valley more than $5 billion annually in health-related expenses according to a peer-reviewed study by Cal State Fullerton in 2008. Approximately 800 premature deaths each year in the Valley are directly related to the illnesses caused by breathing these fine particulates.

Smoke from fireplaces and woodstoves is only part of the PM2.5 problem. From Fresno to Kern County, most of these fine particulates are from a mixture of nitrous oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and ammonia. These deadly particulates are in the air during the stagnant and moist wintertime conditions so prevalent in our valley. Last winter, despite the drought, the air was stagnant and moist enough to produce one of the worst multiple month episodes of PM2.5 ever recorded.

On average winter days, fireplace smoke is around 15% of the total problem. The percentage of PM2.5 formed by other pollutants can be as high as 75%. Direct soot emissions from diesel engines make up another significant part of the total.

As an aside, if you happen to live within a couple miles of a biomass power plant such as the Rio Bravo plant near Malaga, or the Covanta plant near McFarland, you are breathing these deadly particles at high levels all the time. There are no restrictions on when they can burn even though more than half their fuel is landfill diversion from the largest urban areas in the state.

The changes to the fireplace rule are complicated. The public will no doubt be confused. The air will probably be cleaner on good days, but it will also be dirtier on some of the worst days.

Currently, residents must stop burning all fireplaces and woodstoves if the Air District predicts the daily average concentration will reach above 30 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5. The new rule will make the cutoff at 20 micrograms. The result will be that the only time residential wood burning is allowed will be during the cool breezy days of February or during a rainstorm.

But another change to the rule is also being made. Residents with an EPA-certified woodstove will now be able to burn on nearly all the days of winter because their mandated cutoff will be 65 micrograms. This carrot-and-stick approach is supposed to get people to switch from dirty woodstoves and fireplaces to clean woodstoves or inserts. Unfortunately, even these certified wood burners pollute the air with PM2.5 at rates around one-third of their dirtier cousins.

The changes mean that on days when the air quality is above 20 micrograms the dirtier wood-burning devices will not be usable. This is good. On the other hand, on days up to 65 micrograms, cleaner devices will now be usable even though they also pollute the air. In other words, the air is being improved at lower levels of pollution but being made worse at the higher levels.

Total PM2.5 on a season-wide average will drop as a result of this new rule, but the negative health effects from wood smoke may actually get worse. On top of that, the new woodstoves smoke like the dickens when first lit just like any old stove so neighbors and the Air District will not know who is breaking the law and who is not.

The excuse for this nonsense is the claim by the Air District that people will only switch to cleaner devices if they can burn on more days. But, the only beneficiaries of this policy would seem to be the sellers of woodstoves. In fact, to help these businesses even more the Air District is proposing to increase substantially the monetary incentives it offers for people to make the switch.

This is crazy. The Air District is leaving out public health in its calculations. The Air District should really lower the daily no-burn threshold to 15 micrograms, which is the annual standard not being met. Those with certified wood stoves could then burn up to 35 micrograms, which is the 24-hour standard not being met.

No subsidies should be given for any new wood-burning device because they all pollute the air. A monetary incentive for converting an open fireplace to a gas-burning device is the only subsidy that makes sense.

In the end, a virtual ban on wood burning of all types in the Valley is needed including commercial biomass power plants. Finally, there should be stronger enforcement on the no-burn days for the one-third of the population that chooses not to play by the rules.

*****

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 more information, visit www.calcleanair.org.

  • 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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