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Natural but deadly: Huge loopholes exist in US rules on smoke from woodstoves

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Glenn Helkenn lives in a spruce forest, in a tiny log cabin he built on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Alaska’s third largest city.

Give him an hour and a handsaw and Helkenn says he can harvest enough firewood to heat his 96 square foot home for a few days, even when the temperature drops to minus 40. For him, it is. more than free fuel.

That’s what I love to do, Helkenn said. You know, it’s fresh air. This is the time spent in the woods. It’s the racket. This is exercise.

The problem is that about 12,000 other people in the Fairbanks area are also burning wood. Many buy it by the cord to heat much larger homes. On a cold winter day, when an air reversal sets in, the smoke is trapped in the lower quarters for days or weeks.

Fairbanks has one of the dirtiest tunes in the country, in large part from the smoke from the woodstoves. Wood smoke is a serious health threat. It emits high levels of fine particle pollution which can be inhaled deep into the lungs, exacerbating respiratory problems like asthma and increasing the risk of premature death from heart attack and stroke.

In 2015, the U.S. government demanded that newer models of woodstoves perform better and spent millions of dollars to subsidize the transition from older models. Now, an investigation by state environmental officials reveals a critical flaw in that plan: The latest stoves may not be less polluting than the previous ones.

State air regulators have reviewed 250 woodstove certifications and found unexplained data omissions and atypical laboratory practices.

We pulled out the test reports that are supposed to be publicly released and compared did that certification report follow all the rules? And we couldn’t find one that actually meets all the rules, said Cindy Heil, an air quality manager with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. So this is a problem.

An association of New England air regulators called NESCAUM has re-tested about a dozen new models of woodstoves in their own laboratories. They could not replicate the results of the certification. Some stoves did not meet the standards set in 2015. One of them produced so much pollution that it would not have met the very first standards of the United States Environmental Protection Agency from. from 1988.

The Alaska DEC and the New England Air Regulators Group conclude in a new report that the certification procedures and their oversight by the EPAs are a systemic failure.

As long as the process of examining the outbreaks continues with virtually unattended, they say, substandard homes will pass through and people living with the pollution will continue to fall ill and die prematurely, not only in Fairbanks but in all the countries.

Patrice Lee, a resident of Fairbanks, has campaigned for cleaner air for 14 years since his son, born with heart defects, collapsed outside his school, Lathrop High, on a particularly smoky day.

Lee says millions of dollars have been wasted trying to get people to burn wood cleaner when it would have been better to spend it on replacing it with other fuel.

We have a whole generation of young people who might never reach their full lung capacity, or even potentially their cognitive potential, because they inhaled that smoke, Lee said.

Lee says the problem isn’t just the stove technology. Damp wood sends more particles up the chimney, so Fairbanks is steeped in public service messages about how to divide and store firewood. A new oven in town dries firewood for three days before it goes on sale. The Woodway stove dealership offers classes every Saturday to make sure residents know how to operate their stoves with minimal pollution.

And yet, Lee can drive around his town on a cold day and see chimneys emitting thick plumes.

This house here is a habitual delinquent. Just burns and burns and burns, she said, pointing to a house in an older neighborhood. A nearby air sensor on the porch of an 86-year-old woman regularly records the worst readings in Fairbanks, Lee said.

Lee doubts the problem will be resolved in his lifetime. Attempts to clean the air in Fairbanks are a story of half measures, failed technology, administrative errors and political resistance. It has also been difficult for many to accept that burning wood, an activity that seems so healthy and close to the earth, is subject to intense regulation.

Lee says his neighbors are nice people who believe that what they do on their property is their own business.

Their smoke is blowing on my property, she said. My most personal property is my body. And when I can’t avoid the smoke, it’s invading the most personal property I have.

Patrice Lee stands in front of a kiln where wood is dried before being sold, in an effort to limit air pollution. (Liz Ruskin / Alaska Public Media)

Airborne particles from burning wood in homes could be the cause of 10,000 or more premature deaths per year in the United States, according to two studies. In 2017, particulate pollution from residential wood heating was four times higher than particulate pollution from coal-fired power plants.

In the United States, only about 4% of residential heating is wood-based. But this wood heating is responsible for more particulate pollution than any other source: 22%.

The people of Fairbanks have limited options. Most residents who have wood stoves use them to supplement another appliance that typically burns oil. But oil costs more. Propane does not work well in extreme cold. A new utility brings natural gas to Fairbanks and carries it to homes, but it’s not available everywhere and residents say the upfront cost is high.

Taking these factors into account, the state of Alaska spent about $ 12.5 million in EPA grants to replace old wood stoves with newer ones in Fairbanks. He has about $ 15 million more to spend on woodstove programs.

The new stoves must meet a 2020 federal emissions standard for fine particles of 2 grams per hour.

The EPA has approved certifications for hundreds of wood stoves that meet the strictest standard. But Alaska only allows a few dozen to be sold or installed in the Fairbanks area. Cindy Heil, the DEC official, says that with the testing flaws, the state cannot be sure that an EPA-approved certified stove actually complies.

Right now, we’ve made compromises and left some things on the list that still worry us because we need to have something on the list, she said.

The EPA is looking into complaints about the certification program and said it could revoke approvals for ranges and testing labs, if necessary.

Having wood-burning appliances that do not meet standards is problematic for homeowners, as well as for communities and states striving to meet national ambient air quality standards for [particulate matter], the agency said.

The wood-burning stove industry defended its new models. John Crouch, public affairs director for the Hearth Business Group, Patio and Barbecue Association, said he was not aware of any significant data missing from the results of the stove tests.

Crouch said he was not surprised that a second lab couldn’t duplicate the same results.

It’s fire. The fire is pretty random, he says. And these are in the lab. You can imagine when you step out into the real world. It varies a lot.

The problem, Crouch says, is that many residents of Fairbanks still use stoves that don’t meet any EPA standards.

Locals have sent hundreds of older stoves to be crushed in replacement programs, but as many as 2,000 could still be used, state regulators say.

A company called Blaze King produces some of the most popular wood stoves in Fairbanks black boxes with catalytic converters.

Chris Neufeld, Vice President of Blaze King: I would say all of these stoves, everything that our industry makes right now is exceptionally clean. (Liz Ruskin / Alaska Public Media)

Blaze King vice president Chris Neufeld said in the 1970s it was common for a wood stove to emit 60 grams of fine particles per hour well above the current standard of two grams per hour. .

I would say all of these stoves, everything our industry is making right now is exceptionally clean, he said.

A series of Blaze King ranges were not on the Alaska Approved List for the Fairbanks area, even though they were EPA certified. Neufeld said it was because Alaska’s DEC added a metric it considered arbitrary: a particle limit of six grams for the first hour, when stoves burn less efficiently.

Having an early-hour standard is like judging a car by how many miles per gallon it drives uphill, he said. Either way, he suspects a fluke.

If the wood fell exactly as it was intended, it probably would have been like some of the other stoves that were below a gram per hour during the first hour of the filter draw, Neufeld said. We just had a bad race.

Paul Miller, executive director of the Northeastern United States Air Association Group, said testing of woodstoves is a swamp area for the EPA. He said the agency had not rechecked a stove’s certification for decades.

It’s like having your car there and the EPA will never come back to check if any of those millions of cars on the road are performing as certified by the automaker.

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