Wood smoke ban prepped for final vote
A new rule forbidding the use of wood stoves on the smoggiest winter days is steaming toward approval in Multnomah County.
The ordinance — which includes carve-outs for people without another source of heat or money to spend on different types of fuel — is expected to become law on Thursday, Jan. 11. County Commissioners completed a formal first reading of the code amendment on Thursday, Jan. 4.
"Wood smoke is an environmental justice issue," testified Matt Hoffman, an air pollution policy coordinator, at the board meeting last Thursday. "We can't control the air we breathe in our everyday environments."
The rule bans wood burning in recreational, residential and commercial settings for 24 hours when the forecast calls for inversion, an atmospheric condition that traps smoke and pollution beneath a layer of hot air. The no-burn order will be issued in advance of the predicted air stagnation.
Hoffman said fine particulates released by burning wood have been linked to developmental, cardiovascular and respiratory disorders, and are especially dangerous for the elderly, young children and those with breathing problems.
Commissioners Sharon Meieran and Jessica Vega Pederson were spurred to sponsor the change after observing the situation in nearby Washington County, where unhealthy air measurements nearly triggered a crackdown by the Environmental Protection Agency.
If local air fails to meet federal standards, the EPA would almost certainly require a wood burning curtailment program. It also has the authority to close high-polluting industries or prohibit new industrial businesses from opening.
"I think it's time for Multnomah County to take this step," Commissioner Vega Pederson said, "especially because we're having an increasingly dense population, and there's no chance of that changing in the future."
"As an ER doctor, my life has really revolved around helping people who are sick," added Commissioner Meieran. "Wood burning is responsible for 20 percent of the total cancer risk from hazardous air pollutants. That's really a number that shocked me personally."
Government staffers made several changes to the ordinance based on three listening sessions in Portland and Fairview and approximately 50 comments received online.
Among the changes:
• An exemption for fires used in religious rites and other ceremonies.
• Hardship exemptions will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Granted exceptions will remain private to protect residents' privacy.
• A blanket exemption for pellet stoves was removed, but residents with wood stoves that release less than 2.5 particulate grams per hour will be allowed to burn on banned days.
Violations will be enforced based on complaints from neighbors, with suspected violators receiving educational literature after the first two offenses.
For strike three, a government inspector will need to visually spot smoke before imposing a fine of up to $500.
Health officials emphasize the new ban should only happen about three to five days a year during the span between Oct. 1 and March 1.
"It's a big step, but it's well thought out and well researched, and we're not the first," noted Chair Deborah Kafoury. "We can make changes. You have to start with something."
Commissioner Lori Stegmann praised government employees for incorporating residents' concerns into the final draft of the ordinance. Commissioner Loretta Smith was absent.