A ban on burning wood during the inversion season may upset those who enjoy a log in the fireplace on a winter’s evening, but it is a necessary part of a larger campaign for cleaner air, and one that will have immediate and noticeable benefits.
But it is only one part of that campaign, which should include policies just as aggressive against tailpipe emissions as they are against smoke from residential chimneys.
Air quality regulators are considering a virtual prohibition of all wood burning during the inversion season and will hold a series of public hearings on the proposal, which are certain to be contentious. What’s also certain is that wood burning is a significant contributor to particulate matter trapped near the valley floor during an inversion — an obvious target for regulators.
Earlier this year, a broad analysis of the pollution problem by the Utah Foundation identified a seasonal ban on wood burning as the most cost-effective way to bring down pollution levels. Based on the data contained in the analysis, a failure to enact such a ban would almost amount to regulatory negligence.
Even so, it will be difficult to enforce. There have been rules in place since 1992 banning wood burning during periods of heightened risk — but they are often ignored. Minus the mustering of a battalion of fireplace detectives, the effectiveness of the initiative will be subject to voluntary compliance.
Citizens should be willing to do what they can to help fight bad air, but some people continue to burn wood during inversions, just as some continue to idle their cars before their commute on a chilly morning, or while waiting in a fast-food drive-through lane, or while picking up their kids from school. The reality is, the state can only expect so much in the way of voluntary compliance.
There are other initiatives that demand to be pursued even though they may be fruit that hangs higher in the tree. The same Utah Foundation Report that recommended the wood-burning ban also pointed out how far behind Utah is in efforts to reduce auto emissions. For example, the study concluded that the seven counties in the United States that would most benefit from Tier 3 enhanced fuel standards are all in Utah, though there is little chance those standards will be met in the near future.
The report also pointed out that Utah has not joined several other states in creating incentives to increase the number of zero-emission vehicles on the roads. We also have a lower than average rate of use of mass transit and have not done enough to explore the use of tolls and HOV lanes to manipulate traffic patterns.
Snuffing out the practice of wood burning will help, but it won’t be enough to extinguish anxiety over breathable air whenever an inversion pattern sets up over our mountain valleys.