Valley air board moves to restrict fireplace burning

gstapley@modbee.comDecember 20, 2012 

— Fireplace burning could be severely restricted much sooner than initially proposed, while people with cleaner-burning wood and pellet stoves are likely to get more leeway than they do now, air quality officials decided Thursday.

The number of no-burn days in Stanislaus County is expected to more than double for people with open-hearth fireplaces by 2014 – two years earlier than expected, officials unanimously decreed with the landmark vote after hours of testimony from opposing sides.

As a compromise, clean-burning stove owners should get some sort of special treatment not afforded under current no-burn rules, because their devices produce a fraction of the soot that hurts people's lungs.

The deal was proposed by county Supervisor Bill O’Brien, who is chairman of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District’s governing board. He figures that soot levels will go down if more people with fireplaces convert to stoves.

“The benefits will be bigger than what we were even expecting,” O’Brien said.

Some people relying on wood burning as their only heat source are granted exemptions.

Thursday’s vote, in a meeting at Fresno headquarters relayed to Modesto’s north valley office, puts in motion more than 100 additional regulations expected to improve air quality, especially in the winter. The plan to reduce particulate matter, or PM-2.5, eventually will affect activities such as commercial charbroiling, lawn care, commuting and farming.

Fireplace rules commanded most of the attention, including in the Modesto office where people’s comments were relayed via video. Stanislaus County averages 36 no-burn days from Nov. 1 through the end of February; by 2016, that could jump to 74.

Particulate matter is made worse by smoke and vehicle fumes and is harder on lungs than summertime ozone. Further regulating cow manure wouldn’t help much, scientists say.

Two north valley men said their wives are in poor health and wood stoves help them feel better because of the type of heat they provide.

“Drier heat makes a difference,” said D.C. Snow. “It’s a different heat.”

John Barnett of Modesto said his wife’s athsma — normally made worse by smoke — instead subsided for the same reason when they got a wood stove.

Diane Fidel of Turlock said she loves her clean-burning stove, which has “some kind of thing in it that reburns pollutants going up the chimney.” But she didn’t check one day last winter and was fined for using it on a no-burn day.

“I thought then, ‘This is really pukey.’ We spent thousands of dollars on that stove and it doesn’t do any good if it’s a burn day,” Fidel said.

Steve Clegg of Waterford said it costs about $1,500 every six months to fill his mother’s propone tank, which provides heat to her home. Cleaner air makes sense, he said, while urging officials to give some consideration for clean-burning devices.

Steve Goldstein, who sells wood and pellet stoves at Modesto’s Spa Doctor & Stove Center, said, “We get lip service during these board meetings, but in the end there is never real recognition for the products we offer.”

Thursday’s vote aims at changing that, in a big way.

Officials don’t have a clear plan on accommodating clean burners, who might trade some privacy for permission to light up. Current technology doesn’t distinguish open-hearth smoke from much cleaner stove emissions.

O’Brien said it might work similar to vehicle smog checks, where a technician verifies a clean-burning device and issues a permit. Details, such as how to pay for that bureaucracy and thresholds for clean burners as opposed to regular fireplaces, should come forth as staff recommendations in coming months.

Area representatives on the board, all of whom voted for the compromise, were Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra, San Joaquin County Supervisor Leroy Ornellas and Merced County Supervisor Hub Walsh.

Industry representatives said companies have gone to great lengths to adapt to rules, sometimes at considerable expense.

Almond branches now are chopped instead of being burned, but small sticks cause problems requiring more equipment, said Kelly Covello of the Almond Hullers and Processors Association.

More regulations “are truly a hardship on some folks. We adjust or we don’t survive,” said Katie Patterson of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau.

Roger Isom of the Western Area Processors Association and the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association said his groups don’t support the plan at all. Regulations imposed on forklifts, harvesters and tractors already are the most stringent on the planet, he said.

“You’ve put us in a predicament where we’re not competitive with any other region in the world,” Isom said. “There’s nothing more we can do.” Others said valley people have waited far too long for clean air and urged stricter rules.

For example, Michelle Garcia of the Fresno-Madera Medical Society suggested eventually banning leafblowers.

Air board members were rattled by news that federal officials last Friday published new standards for particulate matter and assumed that they were being asked to vote on a plan that already has become outdated. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency representative finally explained that the new goal addresses particulate matter readings averaged over one year, while Thursday’s vote focuses on 24-hour averages.

Officials remain upset that 80 percent of emissions in the San Joaquin Valley come from mobile sources, particularly diesel trucks passing through which the air district can’t regulate.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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