SALT LAKE CITY — An outright prohibition on wood burning during the notorious inversion season along the Wasatch Front and in Cache Valley is under consideration by Utah pollution regulators, who want the public to weigh in on its ramifications.
The proposal will be put out for public comment from Jan. 1 to Feb. 9, after a Wednesday vote by the Utah Air Quality Board, which will also hold seven public hearings early next year in the impacted counties.
"I know this is a really contentious issue, and people have strong opinions about this," said board member Kathy Van Dame, adding she's glad there will be broad public outreach. "I really hope we can do some effective listening to each other."
Any ban would not be implemented until the start of the 2105 inversion season on Nov. 1 and is under consideration by the board at the request of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.
"We have to tip our hats to him," said Brian Moench, president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. "We were not sure if he would press forward with this."
Herbert first called for stricter controls on wood burning nearly a year ago in his State of the State address, citing Utah's notorious air quality problem as a top issue that has to be tackled on both a state regulatory level and by a shift in personal choices.
The ban would be for those counties that remain out of compliance with federal clean air standards for PM2.5, or fine particulate matter. Those areas are Salt Lake and Davis counties, Weber and Utah counties west of the Wasatch Mountain range, portions of Tooele and Box Elder counties, and Cache Valley in Cache County.
A pollution alert system that includes mandatory no-burn or action days already exists in Utah's nonattainment counties when pollution reaches a certain level, but enforcement is difficult, and regulators worry about the extent of compliance.
In the last legislation session, Utah lawmakers ponied up $250,000 for an education campaign aimed at stoking public awareness over wood smoke with radio spots and other outreach.
The education campaign is different from an effort to convert those households that rely on wood or other solid fuel burning as their "sole" source of heat. Those residences are already on a registry, eligible for another pool of money to cover costs of conversion to electric or natural gas heat.
With a wood-smoke ban, that action targets households that burn wood or other fuel to augment in-place heating systems or for ambience, and the commercial, industrial and institutional food preparation, such as meat smoking operations or restaurants with wood-fired pizza ovens.
Joel Karmazyn, an environmental scientist with the division, said there has been a push by some to exempt wood-smoke sources above the 7,000-foot elevation from the ban and to carve out other exemptions for certain types of businesses.
Moench said wood smoke is a health hazard every bit as dangerous as secondhand cigarette smoke and should be regulated out of public exposure.
"Wood smoke is the most toxic form of community pollution that there is," he said, adding that exposure permeates neighborhoods because of the poor choice of one household.
"Wood smoke in a residential area does not disperse well."
But John Mortenson with Energy Distribution Systems — a local distributor of wood stoves and fireplaces — said an outright ban on all wood burning is an excessive regulatory reaction to the pollution problem.
"To be asked to give 100 percent compliance on a complete burn ban is not reasonable. A more balanced and proportionate approach would be better," he said.
Mortenson said it would make sense to encourage people to upgrade to EPA-certified, cleaner burning stoves and work toward phasing out the least efficient and most polluting appliances.
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