Up in smoke

Proposed wood-burning ordinance fails

In a mid-morning public hearing at City Council chambers last week, Nani Teves, a Chicoan and mom, stood before the Board of Governors of the Butte County Air Quality Management District asking the panel to reaffirm its commitment to residents.

First, though, she voiced frustration over the longstanding indecision on introducing mandatory wood-burning rules aimed at bringing Chico—and thus the county—into compliance with air-quality standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I’m a little sad I have to be here and fight for clean air,” said Teves, who went on to recite the district’s mission (taken directly from the BCAQMD Web site), which, in a nutshell, is to protect citizens by improving the air quality.

Teves made her comments about an hour or so before the board failed to approve a plan that would have introduced a mandatory rule to curtail residential wood burning—the single largest emission source of wintertime pollution in Chico—on days when pollution levels became unhealthful.

The Thursday (Sept. 24) meeting was the culmination of at least two years’ worth of work by BCAQMD’s staff, which brought before the board, composed of 10 elected officials (city council members and county supervisors), a proposed rule to reduce fine particulate matter by prohibiting the use of antiquated, emissions-producing residential wood-burning heating devices.

Gail Williams, the district’s senior air-quality planner, explained that a longstanding voluntary “check before you light” program to curb smoke emissions had failed to reduce pollution. Approving the new rule, she said, would help the county comply with Clean Air Act regulations. Without a plan in place, the region would risk losing funding for highway projects as well as the imposition of countywide regulations.

Williams also noted the health risks associated with the smoke. “It’s unhealthy for you,” she said. “It’s unhealthy for your neighbors.”

Her warnings were echoed by Dr. Mark Lundberg, Butte County Public Health’s medical director, who rattled off the hundreds of deaths each year related to coronary artery disease, strokes and chronic lower-respiratory disease. For example, 393 people in the county die each year from coronary artery disease.

“Poor air quality could contribute to these deaths,” said Lundberg, who later said he heard people at the meeting discounting the numbers since no death certificates are issued with poor air quality as the cause. He pointed out that the pollution adds to other ill effects leading to hospitalizations and absences from work and school.

Opponents, including Gridley resident Howard Hammon, used a slippery-slope argument to weigh in on the issue, contending the rule would lead to further restrictions, such as a ban on barbecues. Another man said he was worried about losing a part of Americana, and yet another lamented the loss of fireside romance with his wife.

“What about the freedom to breathe?” countered Luke Anderson, one of the most vocal supporters of the proposal and organizer of the grassroots Chico Healthy Air Alliance.

Anderson, who moved to Chico five years ago having never before experienced respiratory problems, said there are certain smoky winter days when he can’t go outside for more than a half-hour in his neighborhood. He would have recourse if the pollution was emanating from a business, he said, but is powerless because the source of the smoke is coming from his neighbor’s fireplace.

Amid concerns about the scope of the rule—mainly from residents of cities outside of Chico—district staff reiterated that the rule extended to residential burning only within Chico’s sphere of influence on days of poor air quality, and that the mandate would not apply to residents operating EPA-certified wood-burning devices. The ordinance also would include exemptions for the poor and for residents whose sole heat source comes from a wood-fueled device.

Four of the seven members of the board in attendance voted in favor of the new rule. But because the new rule required a majority of the full panel, the proposal failed. Those in favor included Paradise Town Councilman Alan White and three representatives of Chico, county Supervisors Jane Dolan and Maureen Kirk and Chico City Councilman Scott Gruendl.

Gruendl said he didn’t like being compared with Los Angeles and Bakersfield, referring to Chico’s pollution ranking (the third worst in the state for fine particulate matter, according to 2008 figures of the California Air Resources Board). “That doesn’t set well with me.”

Country Supervisor Bill Connelly left shortly before the vote, and Supervisors Kim Yamaguchi and Steve Lambert were absent, leaving the decision in the hands of Gridley Mayor Jerry Ann Fichter, Oroville Vice Mayor James Johansson and Angela Thompson, a city councilwoman from Biggs who said nothing during the hearing, but after the vote explained that she didn’t believe the rule would remain confined to Chico.

Thompson suggested that the district continue with a voluntary policy and conduct more education, such as door-hangers. Williams responded by reiterating that the public has already shown that a voluntary system doesn’t work.

“You don’t listen to the speed limit until you’re stopped by the Highway Patrol,” she offered as an example.

In a telephone interview earlier this week, Anderson said he’s now looking to the Chico City Council to protect the health of residents by enacting a similar ordinance. A majority of the council, he noted, already has voted to support the district’s proposed regulation.

The process will be a bit more complicated, he acknowledged, because it would require the city, rather than BCAQMD, to do the enforcing, and also because the Board of Supervisors would have to approve a parallel ordinance for the unincorporated areas of Chico.

Still, Anderson said efforts would be well worth it.

“For every year we delay doing this, we compromise public health,” he said.