People who use older-model wood stoves, fireplaces and inserts to heat their homes could face several mandatory burning bans this winter as Spokane County seeks to comply with stricter federal air quality standards.
Voluntary bans of the past few years could triple from two or three a season to six to 10 mandatory curtailments during the winter months, officials from the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency announced Tuesday.
Violators who ignore warnings could face fines of $400, said Ron Edgar, the agency’s chief of technical services.
If the restrictions that began Oct. 7 don’t improve air quality, bans could be enacted for certified wood-burning devices as well, Edgar said, although he added that’s unlikely.
“The whole point is to protect the standard,” he said.
Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency strengthened by nearly 50 percent the standards for fine-particle pollution. Under the new rules, the amount of particulates measuring 2.5 microns or smaller – known as PM 2.5 – must be limited to 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air, down from 65 micrograms per cubic meter of air under previous standards.
In Spokane, peak PM 2.5 levels in winter veer very close to the limit, Edgar said.
“We’re up around 30 two or three times a year,” he said.
To maintain the new standard, burn bans are enacted when fine particulates reach 20 micrograms per cubic meter of air and weather conditions threaten to remain stagnant for two days or more.
That was the condition last weekend, when particulates edged up around 22 micrograms per cubic meter of air, Edgar said. But because a storm predicted Monday would bring cleansing winds and rain, no ban was called, he noted.
Particulate levels above 20 could spark bans 10 to 15 times this winter, Edgar said. On those days, agency staff members will monitor violations.
“We’ll have people running around looking for smoke coming out of chimneys,” he said.
People who appear to be violating the standard will be warned, and then asked to document that they have a certified device, usually a stove or insert produced after 1990. Repeated violations could lead to tickets and fines of $400, Edgar said.
Spokane was granted a two-year reprieve on strictly meeting the new standards by the state Legislature. Between now and June 30, 2009, Spokane will determine alternative levels of fine particulates to meet two stages of impaired air quality. Exactly what those limits will be has yet to be determined.
It’s also not clear how many uncertified stoves, fireplaces and inserts are operated in Spokane County. A survey in the mid-1990s showed about 65,000 devices, but that figure is probably far higher now, Edgar said.
The new EPA standards are designed to protect public health. Fine particulates are associated with breathing difficulties, increased asthma and premature death in people who suffer from heart and lung disease.
The Spokane community successfully addressed particulate pollution a decade ago, but the new standards require new action, said Cindy Thompson, director of the eastern region office of the American Lung Association of Washington. Wood smoke can aggravate health problems for the more than 60,000 county residents who suffer from lung disease, she noted.
“We have more people and more burning and it’s time to revisit the issue and pay attention to it,” Thompson said.
Edgar urged people to evaluate their wood-burning devices and to replace uncertified stoves or inserts to improve the health of the community.