Burn ban violation citations jump, but only a few pay fines

rob.carson@thenewstribune.comMarch 17, 2013 

stale air

In this 2011 file photo, Kyra Rhoads walks with "Jedda" along Ruston Way. Earlier in the week that year, stagnant weather conditions and elevated air-pollution levels led the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to announce an extension of the Stage 1 burn ban.

JANET JENSEN — Staff photographer

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s tough enforcement tactics last winter – including threats of $1,000 fines and nighttime enforcement squads armed with infrared cameras – had some stove owners complaining about “the nanny state” and “smoke Nazis.”

Now the 2012-13 burn ban season is officially over and, sure enough, the number of wood smoke violations issued in Pierce County increased dramatically over the previous winter.

The agency issued 1,504 notices of violations in Pierce County between November and March for wood-smoke pollution. That’s an increase of more than 1,100 percent from the winter of 2011-12, when it issued 120 citations.

But as it turned out, the agency’s bite isn’t as bad as its bark.

So far, only three of the 1,504 violators have had to pay fines. One violator paid $500; two paid $250.

Instead, the agency is negotiating with busted wood stove burners to mitigate their penalties, extracting promises to refrain from lighting up again during burn bans, getting them to remove their polluting stoves or signing them up for educational programs regulators refer to as “Burn Ban 101.”

“Our goal is not to collect a ton of penalties,” said Joanne Todd, the agency’s communications supervisor. “Our goal is to change people’s behavior.”

With second-time offenders, however, the gloves will come off, Todd said.

“With repeat offenders, our board has said, ‘Get them,’ ” she said.

Most of urban Pierce County is in a federal non-attainment area for small particulate air pollution – essentially soot – which lodges deep in lung tissue and is blamed for exacerbating several diseases and chronic conditions.

Breathing the tiny particulates has been linked to respiratory disease, decreased lung function, asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature death.

With federal pressure mounting to fix Pierce County’s problem, local regulators have stepped up enforcement and education efforts.

In the winter of 2011-12, the Clean Air Agency had eight inspectors to enforce burn bans in the county. This past wood-burning season, thanks to increased authority granted by the state Legislature, the agency had 62 inspectors available during the bans.

Most of the new inspectors were part-timers lent by Pierce County and the cities of Tacoma, University Place and Lakewood.

According to Todd, the inspectors documented 2,200 observations of visible smoke during the 18 days of burn bans this year. Of those, she said, about 700 did not advance to the civil penalty stage because of lack of solid evidence

Of the 1,504 people issued notices of violations, about 500 have been excused for legitimate reasons. For example, some homeowners established that their wood stoves were, in fact, certified and complied with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emission standards.

Certified stoves are OK to use during Stage 1 burn bans but not during the more restrictive Stage 2 bans.

Others established that their wood stoves were their only adequate source of heat, which gives them an exemption.

Another 120 or so have had their fines eliminated by pleading ignorance of the bans and signing up for text messages or email alerts, and by pledging not to violate again.

Nearly 900 cases still are being worked out, in “conversations” between Clean Air Agency representatives and wood-burners, a process for which the agency has had to hire temporary workers to meet the demand.

“These cases are being worked on every day,” Todd said. “The process is deliberate and careful.”

The backlog of wood-smoke cases probably won’t be cleared until this summer, she said.

Since the stepped up campaign began last year, the Clean Air Agency has convinced 240 households to remove uncertified stoves, Todd said.

That’s progress, but it amounts to just 1 percent of the 24,000 uncertified wood stoves the agency estimates are in use in Pierce County.

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693 rob.carson@thenewstribune.com

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