The Wimp-Out Award

It goes to the county air quality board for failing to take action on wood smoke in Chico

In the battle of esteem-losers, we have a winner! The Wimp-Out Award, for the public agency that provides the most shameful example of punting when it should have acted, goes to—soot-encrusted envelope, please—the Board of Governors of the Butte County Air Quality Management District.

At its meeting last Thursday (Dec. 11), the AQMD board stared at two cold, hard facts about wood burning as well as the resulting, and highly dangerous, fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) in Chico’s wintertime air. That should have prompted action. Instead, it ignored them and did nothing.

The first fact was that the district’s “Check Before You Light” voluntary program to reduce the amount of PM 2.5 was demonstrably not doing the job. People either didn’t know about the program—didn’t read the newspaper, didn’t watch television news—or didn’t care, but the result was that pollution levels had come down hardly at all since the program began Nov. 1 and remained, on average, in excess of federal health standards.

The other fact was that, if the levels weren’t brought down to below federal standards in Chico, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could—and probably would—declare the whole county to be out of compliance for PM 2.5. Such a step could result in a loss of federal funding and/or the implementation of mandatory controls countywide.

The staff proposal before the governors was to institute mandatory no-burn days in Chico during periods of poor air circulation. Homes with EPA-certified wood heaters would be exempt, as would those with no other source of heat. The controls would take effect in November 2009.

Hemming and hawing ensued, with the governors fussing over whether it was appropriate for a countywide group to impose mandatory controls on a single city (note to board: It’s not called the Air Quality Management District for nothing). Then, when a citizen pointed out that the Chico City Council was considering the issue, the governors saw an out and eagerly seized on the idea of inaction, saying they would wait to hear what the city had to say.

In short, they were buying time rather than doing their job, which is to protect the health of the people of Butte County. They wimped out. Take a bow, folks!