Bill Grant Column Jannuary 06, 2009

Wood-stove rules should be mandatory throughout valley

Sunday brought some relief from the days of heavy pollution that darkened the skies last week, as an impermeable barrier of warm air settled like a lid over the Grand Valley.

The photograph on GJSentinel.com showed a crisp and clear morning view across to the Bookcliffs etched against a blue sky. But even on this sunny day, by afternoon, when I walked above the city, a haze had settled into the valley and the sky above the cliffs was tainted with brown haze.

While Sunday’s haze was mild in comparison to the thick smog of the previous week, it nevertheless can remind us that air quality is not an occasional problem that comes with the winter inversions. No amount of polluted air is beneficial, though small amounts may do minimal damage to healthy people. However, to those who suffer from respiratory diseases, especially children, even small amounts of pollution make their problems worse.

Dirty air is not a new issue for this valley. Over the years the county and municipalities have worked to reduce the effects of winter air pollution. Much of the haze over the Grand Valley in winter comes from wood-burning stoves and fireplaces that do not comply with Environmental Protection Agency emission standards. As our continuing problem with polluted air demonstrates, these efforts have been insufficient to curtail the emissions from wood smoke.

A decade ago, the city of Grand Junction adopted the strictest ordinance in the valley against non-conforming wood stoves and fireplaces. When inversions can cause high levels of pollution, the city imposes a mandatory no-burn requirement for non-EPA-certified, solid-fuel-burning devices. It also forbids the installation of non-certified stoves in new or remodeled structures, and requires that when property changes hands, any non-complying heaters be removed or replaced with clean burning stoves.

Similar regulations were adopted by Mesa County and the communities of Fruita and Palisade, with the major exception that the no-burning policy was made voluntary rather than mandatory.

The failure of voluntary compliance is evident in the heavy pollution that blankets the valley during winter inversions. It is a law without teeth, more ignored than obeyed, judging from the haze in the air on bad days.

Though for some people the smell of wood smoke in the air evokes memories of a warm hearth, it is not harmless. In addition to greenhouse gasses, burning wood releases more than 200 chemical substances, including 14 carcinogens and 40 toxic pollutants harmful to human health.

Keeping wood smoke to a minimum is a public health issue.

In the 10 years since the ordinances were adopted, circumstances have changed enough to suggest it is time to revisit the decision to make it voluntary to curtail wood smoke when air quality is diminished. While the number of non-conforming stoves may not be growing, neither do they seem to be phasing out.

Meantime, other contributing sources of pollution are increasing. The growing population brings more motor vehicles to emit exhaust and stir up dust, more businesses in a growing community add to pollution problems, and other new sources of pollution continue to emerge.

For example, the number of outdoor wood-fired boilers to replace gas or electric heating systems, is reported to be on the increase. These highly polluting furnaces will not be approved within the city, but are not currently regulated in the county.

The expected expansion of gas drilling to areas along the Bookcliffs and between Whitewater and Delta could have a profound effect on Mesa County air quality. If the county is to avoid non-attainment with EPA air-quality standards, it needs to take steps to lower pollution from other sources before drilling increases.

The most expedient step the county commissioners could take would be to make no-burn days mandatory when conditions justify it. Unfortunately, our regulation-averse local politicians are unlikely to revisit the issue if they can avoid it. Only when we fall into EPA non-attainment status will that option be taken off the table. Maybe then we will breathe clean air again.

Bill Grant can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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