Regulators of clean air say they need more muscle if they’re going to clean up Pierce County’s wood smoke problem, and so far it looks as if state lawmakers are ready to give it to them.
Bills that would let regulators ratchet down levels at which burn bans are called, set moisture limits on firewood and open the possibility of new restrictions on fireplaces are moving through the legislative process.
The state House passed its version of the bill (House Bill 2326) on Feb. 10 with a 66-30 vote. No one spoke against the proposal in House hearings, and in the Senate, only the Washington Farm Bureau and the Washington Realtors voiced concerns.
“We have both a serious health issue and an economic development impact from this,” Craig Kenworthy, executive director of the Clean Air Agency, told Senate Environment Committee members Wednesday. “This legislation will enable us to avoid the potential for the Environmental Protection Agency deciding how to clean up this problem and a plan being imposed on the area by EPA.”
The changes are being driven by a 2014 federal deadline for reducing soot and other fine-particle pollution in the Pierce County “nonattainment area,” which includes all of Tacoma and most of the rest of the county.
The county was designated a nonattainment area in October 2009, after the EPA lowered its health standard for fine-particle pollution to 35 micrograms per cubic meter from 65.
Fine particles – defined as those less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter – are believed to pose serious health risks. Because of their small size (about 1/30th the diameter a human hair), they can penetrate deeply into lungs.
Year round, most fine-particle pollution in Pierce County, like most places, comes from motor vehicles. On a yearly basis, the county’s pollution is within federal health standards and is dramatically better than in the old Asarco and pulp-and-paper days.
But on an average of 10 or so days each winter, pollution trapped by temperature inversions and stagnant air causes the level of particulates to rise above federal health standards.
During those spikes, the Clean Air Agency says, the problem is not vehicle exhaust or industry or diesel ships idling in Commencement Bay, but wood stoves and fireplaces.
Soot and smoke from wood heat accounts for more than half of the total fine-particle load in urban Pierce County during those periods, the agency says.
Older, uncertified wood stoves contribute about half of that amount, according to Clean Air data. Certified wood stoves account for about 27 percent and fireplaces about 20 percent.
Certified wood stoves and fireplace inserts are designed to emit less pollution. They’re typically newer than the mid-1990s and have a metal label on the back indicating they comply with EPA emission standards.
The fine-particle levels are high enough to have triggered some painful consequences. The EPA says that the Pierce County nonattainment area must have a workable reduction plan in place by the end of this year or face losing federal grants.
Already, because of the “nonattainment” designation, companies doing business in Pierce County face stricter pollution control requirements. The stigma of dirty air is believed to be a deterrent to economic development and tourism.
The Clean Air Agency and the state Department of Ecology are moving forward on several fronts. After eight months of meetings by a local task force, the regulators are recommending stricter enforcement of burn bans and setting a deadline for removing all uncertified stoves.
In addition, the legislative proposals being considered would lower the threshold for calling burn bans.
The way things work now, regulators call burn bans when they believe weather conditions will cause pollution levels that exceed the 35-microgram federal standard, when measured on a 24-hour average within 48 hours.
If proposed changes become law, the burn ban trigger would be lowered to 30 micrograms per cubic meter, measured on a 24-hour average of 72 hours.
Proposed changes also include the possibility of enlisting burn-ban enforcement help from the county, cities and the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. Under the state’s exiting Clean Air Act, those agencies are not allowed to help regulators enforce burning restrictions.
Burn ban violators can be fined as much as $1,000.
The proposal also adds specificity to restrictions about the wood that people would be allowed to burn. It defines the phrase “properly seasoned fuel wood” as wood that has a moisture content of no more than 20 percent.
The changes also open the possibility of additional restrictions on fireplaces, but only as “contingency” measures. The EPA requires nonattainment areas to come up with contingency plans that would go into effect only if the area is not making enough progress to meet the federal deadline.
The state’s current Clean Air Act gives regulators the authority to prohibit wood burning under certain circumstances, but it doesn’t spell out what that authority consists of.
The new proposal’s definition of prohibition includes “requiring disclosure, removal, rendering inoperable, providing evidence of destruction or other similar requirements as may be approved by rule.”
At Wednesday’s committee hearing, John Stuhlmiller of the Washington Farm Bureau questioned the scientific benefit of calling burn bans earlier. Specifying the precise moisture content of wood is too invasive, he said, and he questioned the wisdom of tapping cities, counties and health departments for enforcement assistance.
“We increase the police force, if you will,” Stuhlmiller said. “I’m not sure we necessarily want to do that in tight fiscal times.”
Bill Clarke of the Washington Realtors said his organization supports the changes, but he tried to head off the possibility of new rules that would require that uncertified stoves be replaced with new ones when property changes hands.
“All property should be treated equally,” Clarke said.
Two other legislative proposals dealing with wood stoves failed to meet the Legislature’s deadlines for action.
State Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, sponsored a bill (SB6539) that would have helped pay for increased wood stove education and enforcement by diverting money spent by people whose vehicles don’t meet emission standards.
Owners whose vehicles fail emissions tests now must spend at least $150 to make their cars or trucks run cleaner. Because $150 is almost never enough, the payment has become an unofficial subsidy to mechanics who supply the receipts.
Kastama said the $150 would be better spent by putting it into a wood stove education and enforcement fund.
Another wood stove bill (Senate Bill 6077) that failed to reach the floor this session would have helped pay for increased wood stove education and enforcement by adding $15 to the $30 fee already paid by purchasers of new wood stoves.
That change was part of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget proposal and was sponsored by state Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island.
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693