Burning Issues

Your Legal Right to Protection From Neighborhood Wood Smoke

by S.E.N.C.E.

Puget Sound Clean Air Agency has placed legal limits on the amount of smoke that comes out of wood stoves and fireplaces. These emission standards apply even when there is no burn ban in effect.

If your smoke is difficult to see through or carries a distinct odor to your neighbor’s yard, you could pay a fine in the thousands of dollars. It is no excuse under the law that your wood stove or fireplace is a model certified for low emissions, or that you rely on wood burning as a sole source of heat.

Recent studies show that wood smoke is a serious public health hazard. According to the Washington Department of Ecology, as many as 60,000 U.S. residents may die each year from breathing air polluted with the fine particles found in wood smoke. During winter, the bulk of fine particle pollution in the Puget Sound region comes from wood stoves and fireplaces.

"The Board of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency has urged the staff to develop a long term public information campaign on wood smoke similar to that for cigarette smoke. The point of the campaign is to change the public perception of wood smoke from representing ‘home and hearth’ to the health hazard it presents, particularly for sensitive individuals", according to Jim Nolan, Director of Compliance, PSCAA.

Current regulations limit smoke from wood stoves and fireplaces to 20% opacity. In other words, smoke that obscures visibility by more than 20% is illegal. Although reading smoke for law enforcement purposes requires special training, any smoke that is difficult to see through may well violate the legal standard.

The principal exception to the opacity standard recognized by PSCAA regulations is 20 minutes at the time of ignition and three consecutive minutes for stoking once per hour. The only other exception is for emissions that are opaque due to uncombined water vapor, such as emissions from gas furnaces or clothes dryers.

PSCAA regulations prohibit burning anything other than properly seasoned wood in your wood stove or fireplace. The regulations define "seasoned wood" in terms of moisture content. According to the Washington Department of Ecology, wood that has been split, then dried and stored under cover for at least one year usually meets the moisture content requirement.

The regulations specifically prohibit burning garbage, treated wood, plastics, rubber, animal carcasses, asphaltic products, waste petroleum products or paints. All outdoor burning is illegal without a special permit.

In addition, PSCAA regulations prohibit any air pollution that constitutes a nuisance. It is unlawful to produce any air pollution that is harmful to health or that "unreasonably interferes with enjoyment of life and property." Smoke that carries an odor that is "distinct and definite" to a neighbor’s property may violate this standard.

Enforcement of this nuisance standard may become more aggressive this winter, in light of recent studies linking fine particle pollution to health impacts in the Seattle area, particularly among children and the elderly, and people with respiratory or heart disease.

PSCAA has the power to impose a fine of up to $12,000 for a single violation of any of the legal limits on wood smoke emissions. The fine for a first violation is typically in excess of [$2,000].

PSCAA encourages people to install gas stoves and fireplaces in place of existing wood burning devices. Use of natural gas fuel rather than wood virtually eliminates smoke emissions.

For more information about wood smoke regulations, or to report a problem in your neighborhood, contact Puget Sound Clean Air Agency at 206-343-8800 or 1-800-552-3565 (or http://www.pscleanair.org).

An organization specializing in research and education about the health effects of wood smoke is Burning Issues (www.burningissues.org.).

Another resource is S.E.N.S.E. (Solutions for Eliminating Neighborhood Smoke Emissions) at P.O. Box 2308, Redmond, WA 98073-2308 or 425-818-7736, email: havesomesense@hotmail.com, (website not yet finalized).


Burning Issues
Box 1045
Point Arena CA 95468
Tel: 707-882-3601
Email: [pm10mary at mcn dot org]

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