We all have a stake in getting soot out of our air – and our lungs

The News TribuneDecember 18, 2012 

When a burn ban notice appears on the front page of The News Tribune (under Today’s Weather), consider yourself warned. It’s not a polite suggestion; violation could mean a hefty fine – up to $1,000.

People once could routinely get away with violating burn bans. There wasn’t enough enforcement, or even much of a compelling reason to go after violators. If detected, they’d often just get a warning and told not to do it again.

But times have changed, and local governments have a big stake in locating those who are contributing to the single greatest source of air pollution in this region: wood burners. They’re cooperating with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to augment its corps of 12 inspectors; now about 60 people are available to target burn-ban violations in the Tacoma-Pierce County Smoke Reduction Zone.

That zone – which extends south and east from Tacoma to encompass Lakewood, University Place, Steilacoom, Spanaway, Puyallup and Edgewood – is out of compliance with federal air-quality standards during winter months when people are more likely to build fires.

A series of task force meetings came up with ideas for improving air quality, and now those ideas are being implemented. They include tougher burn-ban enforcement, removing or replacing 5,000 uncertified stoves by 2017, and more public outreach and education.

About 53 percent of the zone’s dangerous fine-particle pollution – sometimes called soot – can be directly traced to burning in fireplaces and uncertified wood stoves. Although the problem is widespread, South Tacoma – with its older, less-insulated homes – has the highest concentration of offenders.

We all have a stake in getting the zone into compliance. The consequences of failing to improve air quality could be dire, including loss of federal transportation money and more restrictions on local businesses.

Then there’s the reason the standards exist in the first place: the threat to public health. Fine-particle pollution is inhaled deep into lungs and can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes. Children with asthma, the elderly and people with health conditions are most vulnerable. Studies have shown that emergency room visits spike when the region is having a bad-air day.

The PSCAA wants to make it easier for residents in the smoke-reduction zone to reduce or eliminate their contributions to the air pollution problem. It has $1.5 million available to remove, recycle or replace uncertified wood stoves or fireplace inserts with cleaner ones.

Low-income residents may even qualify for free replacement of their uncertified devices. Those who aren’t low-income can enter a lottery for free replacement or a voucher worth $1,500 toward a new heating device.

Anyone who is still burning wood in a fireplace or uncertified stove during burn bans is contributing to the region’s poor air quality. They need to step up, take advantage of programs available to help them and do the right thing.

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