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Allegheny County should develop their own Outdoor Wood Fired Boiler regulation

At today’s Allegheny County Board of Health meeting, GASP urged the board to allow the Air Quality Program to develop their own outdoor wood fired boiler regulation as opposed to adopting the state’s inadequate regulation.

While wood smoke may seem harmless compared to air pollution created by vehicles and large stationary sources of pollution, it is actually quite toxic.  Wood smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic matter burn.  Carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) such as benzene and dioxin are released when wood is burned.

Fine particle exposure is associated with asthma, respiratory infections, reduced lung function, cancer, heart attack, stroke, and premature death.  Children, the elderly, and those with cardiovascular or respiratory disease are especially at risk.  Ninety percent of wood smoke is in the most harmful particle size range, averaging less than 1 micronso small that closed doors and windows cannot stop it from entering, even in newer, energy-efficient, weather-tight homes.

These toxic, ultra-fine particles can penetrate more deeply into the lungs, enter the bloodstream, and even pass through cell membranes. The EPA estimates that the lifetime cancer risk from wood stove smoke is twelve times greater than that from an equal volume of second hand tobacco smoke.

You might be asking, why do these devices create so much pollution?  The basic design of OWBs creates significant stack emissions.  When an operator dampers down the unit, the lack of oxygen to support combustion creates a build up of materials such as creosote.  When opening the damper, these materials burn and release immediately to the air.  Excessive loading or low demand for heat further aggravates this problem.  In addition, OWBs emit more pronounced smoke than woodstoves due to the short stack height, which does not disperse smoke above living spaces in neighboring homes.

Unfortunately not all OWB owners are responsible users.  State agencies have documented the burning of wet, large, unsplit wood; wood waste; yard waste; refuse; tires; and railroad ties.  Burning prohibited fuels results in greater PM emissions, and even more troubling, it also results in the production of significant quantities of dioxins.

Outdoor wood fired boilers simply have no place in an urban area like Pittsburgh, and even in suburban areas can be very problematic.  You can find much more stringent OWB regulations in other cities and states.  The State of Connecticut; State of New York; Suffolk County; NY, City of Binghamton, NY; Village of Owego, NY; Town of Warwick, NY, and the State of Vermont all have regulations that require much larger setbacks than what is required in PA.  The state of Washington and 15 towns in Connecticut have banned the use of OWBs all together.

There is no good reason for Allegheny County to adopt PA’s regulation when we can and should develop better regulations that are more protective of residents’ health.  It should also be noted that even the most carefully crafted regulations will remain insufficient to prevent all OWB-related nuisance violations, and as the use of OWBs and other wood-burning appliances increases, additional measures may be necessary to address the regional impact of PM and HAPs resulting from wood combustion. Because OWB-related nuisance violations are inevitable, the ACHD must be vigilant in enforcing opacity and odor regulations.

Following GASP and others’ comments, as well as a presentation by the Air Quality Program, the Board of Health agreed to let the Air Quality Program look at developing their own regulation.  Check out the PG article covering the board of health meeting.

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