Air officials want tougher fireplace rules

Valley air officials want to triple the number of days that residents are banned from burning wood in their fireplaces -- and it's not because the no-burn days are popular.

The bans, which began five years ago, have been a major reason the region achieved the federal standard for coarse specks of pollution, called PM-10, such as soot and ash from fireplaces.

Now, the staff of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District wants a far stricter fireplace rule to help control more dangerous fine particles -- PM-2.5, which include the tiniest bits of soot and ash.

Five years ago, the district's first no-burn rule encountered waves of protest from residents who objected to the $50 fines and the intrusion into their lives.

That sentiment still is alive. People who prefer to warm their homes with wood fires are complaining about the latest proposal.

"We cannot afford to pay $500 a month for PG&E," Sandi Murray of Bakersfield wrote in an e-mail to air officials this month. "I see that you guys have gotten an inch from us homeowners, and now you are trying to simply cut off burning in our fireplaces."

The district proposal would ban burning on 25 percent to 30 percent of the days from November to the end of February in the counties with more pollution, officials said.

Under the current rule, Kern and Fresno counties are ordered to stop burning on an average of fewer than 10 percent of the days each season, according to district figures. Orders are even less common in Stanislaus County.

A stricter fireplace rule is only one of many proposals in the plan to clean up PM-2.5, which medical research has linked to lung disease, heart problems and early death.

About 30 of these specks would fit across the width of a human hair. The valley has some of the worst fine-particle pollution in the state.

A public hearing on the plan is slated for April 30. The cleanup completion is expected by 2014.

Before any new fireplace rule could be passed, the district must develop a detailed rule and hold public meetings in the coming months. It might be 2009 or later before the rule could take effect.

The district in 2003 became the first in the state to pass a fireplace rule.

Since then, a similar rule has been approved in the Sacramento and South Coast air basins. A fireplace rule also is being discussed in the San Francisco area.

District has avoided violations

Valley officials defend their latest fireplace proposal by saying the district has avoided many violations in the past five years by stopping wood fires on bad-air days.

"This control lets us stop a problem at a time when we really need to," said Donald Hunsaker, district plan development supervisor.

The proposed rule would be triggered by forecasts of actual pollution instead of the air-quality index, which is a prediction based on temperature, moisture, wind, pollution and other factors. Activists long have considered the index too lenient and dangerous for people who have breathing problems.

The index is a health-based rating of air quality, from a healthy 0 to a lung-searing 300 and above. When the index reaches 100 -- unhealthy for those with lung problems -- the district asks residents to refrain from burning wood.

At 150 -- unhealthy for everyone -- residents are ordered not to light wood fires.

The new approach would ban burning in any county where actual air pollution is forecast to exceed healthy levels. The air district would use a standard of 35 micrograms of tiny particles per cubic meter of air.

The Sacramento Air Quality Management District last year passed a similarly structured rule. It went into effect in late 2007.

John Crouch, spokesman for the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association in Sacramento, said he had not studied the valley district's proposal. But he said wood smoke is not the only source of PM-2.5.

In the valley, a major part of the PM-2.5 problem is ammonium nitrate, a speck that forms when ammonia from dairies combines with nitrogen oxides from vehicle exhaust.

That pollutant has nothing to do with fireplace burning, Crouch said.

"Somebody's going to have to decide if we're forecasting 35 micrograms for wood burning or for something else," he said. "There has to be more of a judgment than just the federal standard."