Published March 07. 2014 4:00AM
Residential wood smoke emissions will remain exempt from state regulations after environmental regulators on Wednesday denied a petition from three environmental and health advocacy groups.
Despite the denial, however, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection does favor standards limiting pollutants from outdoor and indoor wood-burning furnaces and wood stoves. It just wants the federal Environmental Protection Agency to act first.
"The EPA is updating their wood smoke standards, and before we can formulate a strategy we need to know what the federal standards will be," said Richard Pirolli, director of the Planning & Standards Division of DEEP's Bureau of Air Management, who testified in favor of federal regulations at an EPA hearing on Feb. 26. "It would be premature to initiate our own rule-making."
On Feb. 4, Environment & Human Health of North Haven, the Sierra Club's Connecticut chapter and the Northeast chapter of the American Lung Association petitioned DEEP to establish regulatory standards for residential wood smoke emissions. The regulations would have pertained to outdoor and indoor wood-burning furnaces, indoor wood stoves and other wood-burning devices, setting limits on emissions of particulate matter that can cause a variety of respiratory complaints and exposure to toxins, according to the petition. The petition also sought restrictions on the use and sale of various types of wood-burning units, as well as on the types of wood that could be burned.
Nancy Alderman, president of Environment & Human Health, said Thursday that DEEP is "hiding behind the EPA" by not setting its own regulations.
"We have so many people right now whose health is being harmed by wood smoke," she said, adding that she receives about two to three calls per week from Connecticut residents experiencing breathing problems and other effects of wood smoke from neighboring properties.
One of those was Jean Breuler of Lebanon, who moved from East Haddam in 2011 because of a persistent wood smoke problem in her neighborhood. She was surrounded, she said, by homes heated with indoor wood stoves, and the smoke would hover on her property. She understands her neighbors wanted to heat their homes with wood because of the high price of oil, but the toll it took on her and her husband's health - and that of her horse - was too great.
"You have this persistent, hacking cough, and headaches," she said. "My body just got to feel toxic. On weekends and in the evenings it was intense."
She contacted the town, DEEP, the local public health agency and environmental groups. Many were sympathetic, but no one offered a solution, she said.
She said the state should set emissions standards for wood smoke and develop a way to measure wood smoke pollutants.
Alderman said Environment and Human Health and the two other organizations that joined the petition have not yet decided on their next steps. The issue, she said, has been festering in the state for years, prompting former Attorney General Richard Blumenthal in 2009 to call for a ban on outdoor wood furnaces and wood-fired boilers.
"Wood smoke has many of the same components as cigarette smoke, and although we highly regulate cigarette smoke in this state, DEEP has now denied the state even a modicum of regulations on wood smoke," she said. "We, and many others, are shocked by this response."
Pirolli said DEEP fielded 983 complaints about wood smoke emissions from 2005 to 2013, mostly about outdoor wood furnaces and boilers. Often the agency directs callers to contact local health officials who can better enforce existing regulations, he said. While wood smoke particulate emissions are not regulated, there are existing state regulations that can be applied if someone is creating a nuisance, or if state opacity limits that prohibit smoke darker than the surrounding air by at least 20 percent are exceeded.
"We know there are issues with wood-burning devices, and we actually are working to come up with a solution," he said.
Locally, Ledge Light Health District receives "occasional complaints" about wood smoke of "probably less than three a year," Stephen Mansfield, deputy director, said in an email message. Ledge Light provides health services to East Lyme, Groton, Ledyard, New London and Waterford.
When complaints are received, the agency investigates and if the problem is verified, sends a letter to the owners of the wood-burning stove asking them to take voluntary steps to reduce smoke emissions that can be especially irritating for those with asthma and allergies. These include using only dry, seasoned firewood, never burning scrap wood and maintaining a hot fire. The letter also asks that if a neighbor objects because of health reasons, the owners of the stove or furnace find another way to heat their home.
Uncas Health District, which serves Norwich, Montville and five other towns, also has fielded only "a handful" of complaints each year about wood-burning devices, said Patrick McCormack, director of health. Most of the time, he said, the problems arise when operators are burning trash, wet wood or other materials the units were not designed for, he said.
The devices, he said, are best suited to rural areas where the smoke is less likely to bother neighbors.
While DEEP awaits EPA action on emissions standards, it is supporting a bill pending in the legislature that would continue current requirements about the location of outdoor furnaces and fuels that can be used. Current law states only wood that is non-chemically treated can be burned, and that units must be at least 200 feet from the nearest residence and that smokestacks must be higher than all roofs within a 500-foot radius. Unless the bill is passed continuing the measure, Pirolli said, it would expire when new EPA rules are in place.
At the EPA, rules are proposed that would require new devices to burn clearer and more efficiently, said Ernesta Jones, spokeswoman for the agency. Manufacturers would make upgrades in their equipment in two phases over five years. Most woodstoves currently manufactured, she said, already meet the first limit.
The rules would apply only to new equipment, meaning that woodstoves and wood furnaces already in people's homes would not be affected, Jones said. The cleaner units would cost about 2 to 6 percent more than those currently on the market, she added.
The EPA is receiving public comment on the rule though May 5.