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Air plan could mean more fireplace restrictions

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is unveiling a plan for reducing the tiny particles in the air that are considered the most harmful form of air pollution.

About 80 percent of the particle pollution comes from automobile and truck exhausts, but the air district doesn't have authority to regulate those sources.

The rest of the pollution comes from stationary sources such as industrial boilers and residential fireplaces. Air district officials are considering tighter regulations for those sources, including more days when the district would put a damper on household wood burning to protect the public's health.

The plan dealing with what's known as "PM2.5" pollution -- air particles 2.5 microns or smaller -- will be discussed at workshops next week and in February before the district governing board considers adopting the measures in April. The plan also requires approval from the federal government, which could require tougher restrictions.

"In the valley, we have problems with smog and particulate matter, but there are studies showing that particulate matter has more severe impacts on people's health," said Seyed Sadredin, the district's executive director.

The particles are so small they are breathed directly into the lungs and may be absorbed into the bloodstream, raising the risk of heart attacks, strokes and other health problems.

The valley has met the standards set by the federal government in 1997 to safeguard the public against the short-term effects of particle pollution, although the Environmental Protection Agency tightened the rules last year.

Sadredin said the valley should be able to meet the 1997 short- and long-term standards for particle pollution with the new plan and make progress with the more stringent 2006 standards.

The initial draft of the PM2.5 strategy has many of the same measures as the district's ozone cleanup plan that some critics believe is not aggressive enough.

The ozone plan focused on reducing nitrous oxide emissions that lead to ozone formation in the atmosphere, and the same measures can control particle pollutants, Sadredin said.

The PM2.5 strategy also targets sulfur dioxide emissions from industrial boilers and steam generators, glass plants and fertilizer manufacturers.

As for pollution caused by motor vehicle traffic, the district will urge the state to adopt regulations for cleaner-burning diesel engines in trucks, cars and farm equipment.

Tighter fireplace restrictions?

Sadredin said valley residents probably will be most interested in the fireplace restrictions.

Last year, the district adopted a policy banning residential wood-burning when the air quality is unhealthy for the general population, as is the forecast in Stanislaus County for today.

One proposal in the draft plan would ban wood burning when the air pollution exceeds the level considered unhealthy for children, seniors and people with chronic illnesses.

The regulation would result in about 15 no-wood-burning days a year in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties, compared with two or three days under the current restrictions, the director said.

Another idea is an education campaign telling residents that a crackling wood fire spews harmful emissions. It's better to use processed logs or natural gas fireplaces or certified stoves using pellets as fuel.

Health advocates have said the district's ozone cleanup plan needs to be more stringent to prevent human suffering and the particle pollution plan already was drawing criticism Thursday.

"If they can't identify how to get rid of the ozone, how can they make that the foundation for reducing particulate matter?" said Mary-Michal Rawling, program manager of the Merced-Mariposa County Asthma Coalition.

Rawling said the district should prohibit residential wood burning when the pollution is harmful to sensitive groups. Children, seniors and people with asthma and other chronic illnesses make up about half the population, she said.

The federal EPA is expected to require states within four or five years to submit plans for attaining the 2006 standards for particle pollution.

In another matter, the valley air district is proposing an immediate 8 percent fee increase for most district permits and an additional 8 percent in 2009-10. It would be the first across-the-board increase since 1997 in the district fees for permits, open burning, emission reduction credits, dust control plans, equipment registration and source reviews.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.

BURNING BAN


Stanislaus County residents could face a $50 fine if they stoke up their fireplaces today or this evening. Because of a forecast for poor air quality, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District placed a ban on burning wood, pellets and processed logs. The ban will be in effect at least through midnight, according to a district news release.

Exceptions: Burning is allowed in homes that have no access to natural gas or no other source of heat. Also exempt are homes in western Stanislaus County above 3,000 feet elevation.

From Nov. 1 to Feb. 29, the air district advises residents to check the district's Web page before burning. At www.valleyair.org click on "Check Before You Burn." The status is updated by 4 p.m.

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