When setting out to explain the difficulty in improving the region’s air quality, InvestigateWest’s Robert McClure and Katie Campbell of EarthFix and KCTS found that old wood stoves, with an assist from fireplaces and their ilk, produce half the soot fouling Puget air during still winter days – a contribution five times great than that of heavy industry. It’s a common problem in the Northwest, where wood is a cheap (free, for many rural residents) alternative to electric or oil-fueled heaters.
Photo by Ken_Mayer via Flickr
Those old wood stoves are to blame, in large part, for putting Tacoma, Wash., and other cities in violation of the Clean Air Act. With the potential for tighter federal regulations to be drafted in 2012, the pressure is on for local governments to take on local wood burners, an unpopular prospect in tough economic times, especially in regions with little appetite for government interference and federal regulation.
Restricting use of wood stoves that heat so many homes across the Northwest is a difficult proposition, though, because many people can get wood for cheap or for free, and using a wood stove can greatly reduce electricity and natural-gas bills that run wild in the winter. Installing a new clean-burning stove typically costs $2,000 or more – and many argue that it’s lousy timing to launch an expensive campaign to clean the air, federal standards or no federal standards.
Yet that’s the recommendation of a task force representing local governments, industry, the military and others involved with soot pollution levels in and around Tacoma. Last week the group voted to recommend removal of all wood stoves that don’t meet current government standards by 2015 in the area violating the Clean Air Act.
Currently, the Clean Air Act requires that cities like Tacoma clean up their soot by 2014, but the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency is already, in the reporters’ words, “counting on” the EPA to extend the deadline “until as late as 2019.” That agency’s director says, given the costs involved, “This is a Western problem, and we need federal help.”
That’s because of the size of the task. The Puget Sound agency estimates it needs to persuade or force some 15,000 of the 24,000 owners of uncertified wood stoves to remove them in order to comply with the Clean Air Act.Just to remove and patch up the walls where those 15,000 stoves now stand would cost about $7.5 million – and at least some families would need to install a new wood stove at a cost of $2,000 or more each.
According to McClure and Campbell, the sooty particles of that winter tradition we used to call “The Inversion” in Boise can contribute to “heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, asthma attacks and premature death – in addition to cancer.”
In Washington, the state Ecology Department estimates that sooty pollution from sources including wood smoke and diesel exhaust contributes to 1,100 deaths and $190 million in health costs annually.
Ecology says a conservative estimate of the annual number of deaths attributable to soot pollution in Pierce County alone is 140.