Smoking and fogging

City Council takes up two controversial air-quality issues

Firefighter pact
On a 6-1 vote, with Larry Wahl dissenting, the Chico City Council approved a reworked contract approved by firefighters Jan. 28. The agreement, which forestalls layoffs, calls for no raises for two years, a 5 percent cut in starting salaries, and employee contributions to health and dental insurance.

When it comes to public health, Dr. Mark Lundberg comes down firmly on the side of science. That’s why the county’s public-health officer ended up taking divergent positions on two air-quality issues before the Chico City Council Tuesday night (Feb. 3).

First, he supported public calls for stricter regulation of wood heaters. Later, though, he disagreed with public calls for stricter regulation of pesticide fogging to kill mosquitoes.

The issues were agendized separately, but there was definite overlap among those who spoke to the council about them, with several speakers supporting both regulation efforts.

On the wood-heaters matter, the council was being asked whether it wanted to support a series of recommendations from its Sustainability Task Force that would be sent to the board of the Butte County Air Quality Management District. That board is currently deliberating its Rule 208, which would switch Chico from a voluntary bad-air-days “no-light” program now in effect for owners of wood heaters to a mandatory program next winter.

EPA-certified heaters and residents with no other source of heat would be exempt.

For now, anyway, the switch would affect only the Chico area, where wintertime inversion layers make wood burning the most problematic in Butte County. The fine-particulate matter (called PM 2.5 because it is smaller than 2.5 microns) in wood smoke is one of the most dangerous air pollutants because it lodges deeply in the lungs and can cause a wide range of illnesses, from asthma and chronic bronchitis to heart attacks. Modeling data, Lundberg told the council, suggest some 16 people a year die prematurely in Butte County from particulate pollution.

In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency has given the county five years to meet federal pollution standards or face the possible loss of transportation funds.

For several of the more than 20 speakers, the issue was about freedom—whether freedom to heat one’s house as one pleases or freedom to breathe clean air.

“My freedom to wave my fist around ends where Ann’s face begins,” said clean-air activist Luke Anderson, referring to Mayor Ann Schwab. Data shows that the voluntary program simply hasn’t worked, he added.

But Stetson-hatted Tony Ray was adamant. “I burn a fireplace,” he told council members. “It’s burning right now, and when I get home I’m going to throw another log on it. … You all need to get on the business of running Chico and get your noses out of the people’s business.”

Councilman Larry Wahl argued that the voluntary program hadn’t been given enough time to work, but the rest of the council seemed to believe mandatory restrictions were inevitable. They not only voted 6-1 to support the STF recommendations, but also called for an increase in the recommended standard, from 30 micrograms per cubic meter to the World Health Organization’s standard of 25 micrograms.

The recommendations also encourage the BCAQMD to take the lead in establishing a regional air-pollution-mitigation fee that could fund replacement of old, dirty wood heaters with new, EPA-certified ones.

The air-quality district’s board will take up the recommendations at its Feb. 26 meeting.

In September 2008, the council referred the controversial practice of fogging to kill mosquitoes to its Internal Affairs Committee. The IAC came up with a series of recommendations that were presented to the council Tuesday night.

A local watchdog group called SWAT (Safety Without Added Toxins) has formed in an effort to obtain better notification of when the independent Butte County Mosquito and Vector Control District planned to spray and better communication generally with the district.

District Manager Matt Ball insisted that the district already was doing a good job of responding to SWAT’s requests and that nearly all of the IAC’s recommendations had been implemented. The longtime president of the district’s board, eco-analyst Al Beck, seemed to dismiss SWAT’s worries by stating that the council was paying too much attention to a small group.

Beck, who is the city’s representative on the board, also responded to one of the IAC’s recommendations—that the council review its procedure for appointments and consider whether a council member should represent the city—by stating defiantly that by law he couldn’t be removed until his term was up in 2011.

This prickliness on the part of district officials—especially when contrasted with SWAT members’ heartfelt concerns about the health impacts of the fogging—bothered some of the council members. Schwab noted that Ball was being “defensive,” and Councilman Scott Gruendl accused him of being “snotty.”

As to Beck’s comments, Gruendl said, his voice rising, “I’m angry about our appointed representative telling the council that it can’t do anything about his term.”

In the end, though, the council seemed to agree with speakers such as Lundberg who argued that the benefits of spraying, in terms of preventing such diseases as West Nile virus, outweighed the risks posed by spraying. They did vote 6-1, with Wahl dissenting, to accept the IAC’s recommendations and also to direct the city attorney to provide an opinion on whether they can change their representative to the district board.

The recommendations, which will go to that board, call for expanded notification of spraying, better communication between the district and the city, and for the district to submit a report on how it’s responding to public concerns.