City takes lead on wood smoke

Council agrees to move forward with mandatory no-burn-days plan

That the Chico City Council would decide to move forward to tighten wintertime wood-burning rules in Chico was a given. What made its meeting Tuesday (Jan. 5) interesting was the tack the discussion took.

Some history is in order: Back in February 2009 the council voted 6-1, with Larry Wahl dissenting, to recommend to the board of the county Air Quality Management District that it not only adopt a proposed Rule 208 instituting mandatory no-burn days in Chico, but also that the rule be made even tighter than AQMD staffers were proposing.

Wahl’s principle arguments were that the rule was just more government regulation limiting personal freedom and that no direct correlation between wood smoke and health problems had been established.

On Sept. 24, 2009, the AQMD board for the second time failed to approve the rules, even though all three of its Chico members (Supervisors Jane Dolan and Maureen Kirk and Councilman Scott Gruendl) supported implementation. The three other supervisors were absent, and representatives of Oroville, Biggs and Gridley were reluctant to support a regulation that would apply only to Chico.

On. Sept. 29, Luke Anderson, who heads up the group Chico Healthy Air Alliance, asked the council to consider adopting its own ordinance. The council voted, again with Wahl dissenting, to direct its staff to come up with a plan.

That plan would adapt Rule 208 to apply to the city’s sphere of influence, which in some areas extends beyond city limits to include populated county land that could eventually become part of the city. It would require approval by the Board of Supervisors and a joint powers agreement with the AQMD, which would be responsible for enforcement.

Mandatory no-burn days would be called only when pollutant levels threatened to exceed state and federal standards for healthfulness and would apply only to fireplaces and non-EPA-certified heaters. Homes that have no other source of heat would also be exempt.

As Dr. Julian Zener, a Chico cardiologist, told the council Tuesday, wood smoke has been shown to be very harmful, especially to children and old people. Its fine particles (smaller than 2.5 microns) lodge in the lungs and cannot be expelled, and can exacerbate asthma and lead to lung disease, cardiovascular problems, heart disease and even death.

That argument had been much discussed in the several meetings that preceded this one, so Councilwoman Mary Flynn took a different tack, one that directly addressed Wahl’s oft-professed pro-business stance.

Pointing out that, unless Chico and Butte County clean up their air, the feds have threatened to withhold transportation funding, she reminded him that the city recently had received $2.5 million from the federal government to widen Cohasset Road out to the airport. “That’s a business-friendly improvement that would have been put in jeopardy” if the feds were inclined to withhold funds, she told Wahl.

Good roads are good for business, she argued, but if the city has to pay for them out of the general fund because federal funds have been cut off, that means less funding for police and fire protection, another cause Wahl has championed.

And what company would want to set up shop in Chico, she asked, knowing that it had the third-worst air in the state, after Bakersfield and Los Angeles?

The health issue wasn’t ignored, however. Councilman Andy Holcombe was especially passionate on this point. Air quality is already regulated, he pointed out, and if the city doesn’t act the feds are going to step in. “The city has an opportunity to draft a narrow, targeted regulation to head off more draconian regulations from the federal government,” he stated. “But more important this is a public-safety issue. It’s about protecting people.”

At this point Wahl asked, “What happened to the voluntary program?” He was referring to the AQMD’s ongoing “Check Before You Light” campaign.

Gruendl, the city’s representative on the AQMD board, replied that it had been in effect for several years but wasn’t getting the job done. (Anderson would later tell the council that, on four of five voluntary no-burn days this winter, pollution levels had exceeded federal standards.)

Wahl asked the council to send the matter back to the AQMD, saying “It’s their job and should be done county-wide.” Holcombe agreed it was better done on a county level, but at this point that wasn’t happening, and Chico should lead by example.

There was some discussion of how the city could offer incentives to people to change out their old stoves or buy fireplace inserts. At the suggestion of Michael Reilley, a local insurance agent who frequently participates in council hearings, council members also agreed to investigate the possibility of waiving city fees related to new heaters.

In the end, they voted, with Wahl dissenting, to move forward with the plan. The current timetable, which includes taking it to the supervisors and the AQMD, would have it back before the council in April. It would be implemented in November.

In a phone interview Wednesday (Jan. 6), Supervisor Steve Lambert said he’d been out of town on Sept. 24, when the AQMD board met. He was supportive of the city’s plan, however, seeing it as helpful in meeting the county’s overall air-quality goals. “If Chico wants to fall on a grenade [for the sake of the rest of the county], that’s fine with me,” he said.