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News Review: Oregon Joins Other States In Taking EPA To The Woodshed

The Roseburg News Review | Nov. 4, 2013 2:06 a.m. | Updated: Nov. 4, 2013 10:16 a.m. | Roseburg, Oregon

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By Christina George

Oregon and six other states are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, alleging it has failed to limit pollution from wood stoves, a common heating source in Douglas County.

In announcing the lawsuit last month, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said the suit will put pressure on the EPA to require new wood stoves meet stricter pollution standards.

“Smoke from residential wood stoves pose a real threat to air quality, in rural Oregon and the Portland area,” said Rosenblum, a Portland Democrat.

Stricter standards could make more wood stoves subject to a current state law that requires home sellers to remove or replace outdated wood stoves before selling.

Other states that filed the lawsuit are New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont - all states with Democratic governors and attorney generals. Puget Sound Clean Air Agency of Washington state also joined with the states in the suit. Earthjustice has filed a similar lawsuit.

According to the complaint filed by the states in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the EPA in 1988 set emission standards for wood stoves and committed itself to review the standards every eight years. The suit alleges EPA hasn’t kept its promise.

Rosenblum’s spokesman Michael Kron said wood stove technology has come a long way since EPA did a review. He said stricter standards would mean better air quality and healthier residents.

“Improving the emissions and efficiency of wood stoves will help a number of Oregon communities that are frequently bumping up against, or even surpassing, EPA’s separate standards under the Clean Air Act for fine particulate pollutants, due in large part to wood stove use,” Kron said in an email.

Roseburg’s air pollution rises slightly between November through February as the air stagnates and residents fire up their wood stoves, said Rachel Sakata, an air quality planner with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Still, the city’s air quality remains good, she said.

Towns like Klamath Falls, Oakridge and Lakeview, however, often have poor air quality. Sakata said wood stove use and topography are likely factors.

Health officials have linked wood stove smoke to health problems such as heart attacks, asthma attacks and even premature death. The smoke can be especially hazardous to children.

“If they are in a house with a poorly functioning wood stove, it is especially harmful for kids with asthma or kids with other breathing problems,” said Dr. Robert Dannenhoffer, a Roseburg pediatrician. “If you can go in the house, and you can smell the smoke, then that is a problem.”

Lyle Miller, owner of Fisher’s Hearth and Home in Roseburg for 34 years, said wood stoves are popular in Douglas County.

“We have a culture in our area that lends itself to wood,” Miller said. “It is a dry radiant heat, and in Roseburg, we don’t get as cold as other areas, but we get wet, and wood heat is the greatest heat when dealing with wet because it penetrates and radiates.”

Miller said he noticed an increase in wood heating in the 1970s when oil prices rose.

He said Douglas County residents took advantage of readily available wood and installed stoves to heat homes.

The problem, Miller said, was that stoves, some of which he described as steel boxes made by amateurs in their garages, produced too much smoke.

“People would load it up too much and shut the air way down, and the air to fuel ratio was such that it caused the heavy smoke,” he said. “That got us into trouble.”

Wayne West, 83, has relied on a wood stove to help heat his home on Whistlers Park Road in Roseburg for 25 years. Twenty years ago he brought the fireplace up to code because it was improperly installed.

“We just like wood heat, and we have a large house, and we use it to cut down on electricity,” West said.

Sabreena Borden said she uses her wood stove at her Riddle home for a month out of the year.

“Ours is an old one and it smokes a lot,” said Borden, 35. “You definitely see (the smoke) in the valley on colder days when everyone is using their wood stoves.”

West and Borden both said they have not experienced health problems from their stoves.

“They have standards in Oregon, but I think there is room for improvement, and I appreciate the fact they watch it close enough,” West said.

An EPA official in an email said the agency is reviewing the lawsuit and is working on new standards for wood stoves.

“Over the past two years, EPA has conducted extensive outreach and received important feedback that has helped inform the draft now under the review,” the email stated. “Once the interagency review is complete, EPA will issue a proposal, and the public will have the opportunity to review and provide comment before EPA takes final action.”

The Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, a trade group that represents manufacturers of home-heating devices, has moved to join the lawsuit against the EPA.

The executive director of the association in Oregon, Harvey Gail, said tougher standards will cost the millions of dollars, reduce consumer choices and be a burden for rural residents.

Nevertheless, the association says regulatory uncertainty and a patchwork of state rules have hurt manufacturers.

“The typical consumer might well be taken by surprise by this and feeling government coming after them to take away their stoves,” Gail said. “It is more about pushing the standards to a higher level than it has been.”

The association’s spokesman, John Crouch, said removing a wood stove that fails to meet environmental standards could cost $2,000 to $4,000.

- You can reach reporter Christina George at 541-957-4202 or at cgeorge@nrtoday.com.

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