No-burn days are hard to enforce
By Michelle Ye Hee Lee, The Arizona Republic
Posted 10h 1m ago
Maricopa County officials say rules to stop residents from using their fireplaces on winter no-burn days are virtually unenforceable, pointing to consistent violations since 2007.
Today is a no-burn day. To find out about no-burn notices, visit www.cleanairmakemore.com or call 602-506-6400.
Though stricter enforcement would be possible with more resources, aides to the county Board of Supervisors say that is unlikely to happen because the board considers it a lesser priority.
No-burn days are issued when there is a high-pollution advisory, and when stagnant air and winter inversions trap pollution close to the ground. The no-burn regulation prohibits residents from burning wood, whether in a fireplace or outdoors.
The Maricopa County Air Quality Department typically declares no-burn days on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Those days generally create the worst conditions for tiny particulates: winter weather and heavy wood burning by residents.
The point is to limit pollutants emitted in wood-burning smoke to prevent health risks -- especially for people with respiratory illnesses -- and to avoid exceeding federal health standards for those pollutants.
But every year, residents nonetheless huddle around their fireplaces to celebrate the holidays. And every year, Maricopa County exceeds federal standards on those four no-burn days.
For example, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 2011 were no-burn days, but the Valley's pollution levels exceeded the federal limits by as much as twice the limit at some air-quality monitors.
County officials said there is an inherent enforcement problem in trying to change a culture deeply rooted in family holiday traditions.
County administrators said they are not willing to dedicate the resources needed to enforce the rule because there is no imminent threat of exceeding the annual federal standards.
Although small-dust particle levels exceed federal limits on those four holidays every year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency looks at the data based on yearly averages.
As a result, Maricopa County in the recent past has not been in danger of being out of compliance with small-dust particle standards, said Matt Poppen, senior air-quality policy manager for the Maricopa Association of Governments, a coalition of local governments that serves as a planning agency for the Phoenix area.
But public-health advocates and county Air Quality Department leaders continue to ask the public not to light their Yule logs -- for the community's sake.
"It's everybody's air. It's not one individual's air to burn and to pollute. Everybody has to breathe it, so we're asking people to do the right thing and not burn," said Christian Stumpf, regional director of government relations for the American Lung Association of the Southwest.
No-burn complaints pile up
For the past three years, Maricopa County has not acted on the vast majority of wood-burning complaints from county residents.
Between Jan. 2, 2008, and Dec.28, 2011, the county Air Quality Department received 1,435 complaints of wood burning, according to department records. For the same time period, the department issued 43 violation notices and 34 warnings for wood-burning activity.
There are several reasons why enforcement has not been effective, said county air-quality Director Bill Wiley.
There are at least 1million single-family homes in the Valley, with a population of 3.9million residents. But only four or five air-quality inspectors are willing to volunteer to patrol the Valley for a few hours on the holidays to respond to no-burn complaints.
Even if inspectors smell smoke in an area, regulations require them to actually witness smoke coming from a chimney or fire source and photograph it -- usually in the dark -- before issuing a warning or citation.
For a first proven violation, residents receive a warning in the mail. For subsequent violations, they are fined increasing amounts, up to $250.
The no-burn rule applies to any wood-burning activity at homes, businesses, hotels and outdoors. Even so, some winter resorts for years have promoted and allowed wood burning during the holidays and consider it a key aspect of their business.
"Our guest experience includes a distinctive sense of place -- the sights, sounds and the scents of this region. Our wood-burning fireplaces also add to the romantic appeal of our guest accommodations," Michael Hoffman, managing director of Boulders Resort and Golden Door Spa in the northeast Valley, said in a statement, adding that residents in the resort's casitas have burned wood since the mid-1980s.
Department trimmed back
Wiley said his agency does not have the resources for stricter enforcement.
Since 2008, the department has had three layoffs that reduced its size by nearly half. The department's budget largely relies on permit fees, which are way down because of the economic downturn.
Wiley said the county Board of Supervisors could vote to allow statutory changes so his department could enforce the rule in a more efficient way, or approve a change to the department's fee structure.
But neither change is likely. This year, county supervisors repeatedly rejected the Air Quality Department's request to increase fees for some air-quality permits. County air officials had said the hikes for companies that emit pollutants would raise an added $1.1million for the department.
But no-burn enforcement is lower on the list of air-quality priorities for supervisors because the county has been in compliance with annual federal standards, said Jim Bloom, chief of staff for outgoing Board of Supervisors Chairman Andy Kunasek. The most pressing issue, he said, is the region's exceedances of PM10, large dust particles generated by weather conditions, vehicular traffic and industrial activities.
Those exceedances are considered more crucial to enforce because repeat offenses could result in the region losing federal highway funding, Bloom said. Compliance with federal dust-pollution standards is a requirement to receive federal transportation funding.
"If two 24-hour periods over Christmas and New Year's mean we've exceeded federal limits for small-dust particles but don't affect the overall compliance data in any way, we don't see this as a Priority One problem," Bloom said. "Let people have a little freedom on the holidays."
Wiley said a "mixture of approaches" could be taken to better implement the no-burn rule.
He listed a handful of options, such as offering incentives to residents for adhering to no-burn rules or using gas-burning fireplaces instead.
But switching to gas-burning fireplaces is not common in Maricopa County, and is generally an expensive process, Wiley said.
Reaction to no-burn days
The Arizona Republic received more than 100 responses online this past week to postings on social media regarding no-burn enforcement. Comments ranged from defiance of the no-burn rule to personal anecdotes about health problems stemming from wood-burning smoke. Those comments reflect a polarized public reaction to the no-burn rule, said the lung association's Stumpf.
Smoke from wood burning emits PM2.5 dust particles, which are so tiny that about 30 of them would make up the width of a human hair.
Although people can sneeze out bigger particles, the tinier particles settle in the lungs or bloodstream, and can cause lung irritation or damage. They can especially cause problems for the elderly, children, and people with asthma and other lung or heart ailments.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District in San Francisco, with a jurisdiction of 7million people, implemented a no-burn rule in 2008 and launched a health-education and enforcement campaign.
It now has 70 inspectors who concentrate their patrols in areas that have the most wood-burning complaints, said Kristine Roselius, the district's spokeswoman.
Winter, when conditions are more likely to trap small pollutants, is the district's "major priority because PM2.5 is so dangerous to public health," Roselius said.
District studies have shown that wood-burning smoke is dangerous inside the home as well, she said.
When the rule was implemented in 2008, the area exceeded federal standards on 13 days. Two years later, there was only one exceedance, according to district data.
Maricopa County officials and public-health advocates said there still is more room in the Valley for public outreach.
"It's one of the few opportunities where individual residents can really contribute to preventing an exceedance. It's pretty clear that these exceedances on Christmas and New Year's are tied to wood burning, and this is an opportunity for each person to do their part in a way and really prevent exceedances," said MAG's Poppen.
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