The politics of wood burning

– A local resident has turned activist following the city’s
approval of an anti-wood-burning ordinance, vowing to start a
petition drive to repeal a new law that bans wood-burning
fireplaces in new homes and mandates eco-friendly upgrades as part
of some renovations.
Gilroy – A local resident has turned activist following the city’s approval of an anti-wood-burning ordinance, vowing to start a petition drive to repeal a new law that bans wood-burning fireplaces in new homes and mandates eco-friendly upgrades as part of some renovations.

Speaking before City Council members Monday night, Jim Gailey waved a few pages of unofficial petition signatures as evidence of popular opposition to the ordinance. Gailey, who said he gathered 50 names in just four hours, plans to go door-to-door to collect the nearly 2,000 signatures he will need to add a measure to the November ballot.

“Like anything, there has to be a measured balance between cleaning up the air and living a reasonable lifestyle,” said Gailey, who claims there is no scientific data to support the ordinance. “They’re trying to do a good deed, but not all good deeds deserve to be done.”

In the Monday night discussion leading up to a 5-2 vote in favor of the ordinance, most councilmen were confident they had reviewed the data justifying ordinance and its health benefits.

“If it’s just a small amount that’s impacted, that’s better than nothing,” Mayor Al Pinheiro said.

Councilmen Craig Gartman and Russ Valiquette voted against the ordinance after failing to convince fellow council members to postpone approval and hold an additional study session.

The new ordinance, which takes effect in April, bans wood-burning fireplaces and stoves in new homes and mandates eco-friendly models when renovations to current homes affect the size or shape of the existing model. The list of acceptable replacements include pellet-fueled wood heaters, gas fireplaces or some other federally approved heating device.

As with any home feature not meeting current standards, homeowners must bring a fireplace up to code in the event of damage from an earthquake or some other natural disaster or accident.

The city began looking into a partial ban on wood burning in September 2004, when the Bay Area Air Quality Management District sent the city an appeal to consider such an ordinance, according to Gilroy Environmental Programs Coordinator Lisa Jensema.

She and an intern spent “months and months” contacting other Bay Area cities and counties with similar ordinances and running proposals by various city staff members and committees. In addition to Gilroy, 32 other cities and six counties in the region have ordinances banning wood burning.

Gilroy’s approval of the ordinance leaves Cupertino and Los Altos Hills as the last holdouts in Santa Clara County, Jensema said.

But Gailey said that the Bay Area air district that inspired the ordinances is more “a political animal” than a dispassionate advocate driven by hard facts. In support of that argument, he pointed out that the air district has not tested in Gilroy for particulate matter, a byproduct of wood burning that can enter the lungs through the air and aggravate asthma and cause other respiratory problems, especially during the winter months.

Emily Hopkins, a spokeswoman for the air district, said the absence of a monitoring station in Gilroy is not a legitimate argument against the ordinance.

“The primary reason the district has a model wood-smoke ordinance and the reason we encourage cities to adopt one is because it’s a public health issue,” she said. “There are some minimum health levels established by the EPA.”

She explained that PM10, particulate matter about one-seventh the width of a human hair, as well as the smaller PM2.5, can bypass the human immune system and get into the lungs.

“The state has found that PM10 is a health concern,” she said, arguing that the lack of actual monitoring stations in Gilroy is no reason to dismiss the seriousness of the threat.

“I would have to say there’s definitely an issue of transport because of the location of where Gilroy is, down in the South Bay,” Hopkins said. “We recognize that wind does blow all types of pollutants, including particulate matter, towards Gilroy most of the time.”

Particulate matter is a winter-time problem insofar as much of it comes from wood burning, according to Hopkins. She said the monitoring stations, set up throughout the Bay Area, have shown that wood burning contributes 30 percent of the particulate matter in the air during winter months.

“The other major source is vehicles and that’s always a problem,” Hopkins said. “The fact is that the wood smoke comes from a stationary source, which we can do something about.”

Gailey, who has a wood fireplace but said he has only used it a few times since installing it in 2000, does not disapprove of the ordinance entirely. In fact, he supports a portion that prohibits burning paint and other chemicals in fireplaces, and he plans to craft his petition to only target parts affecting residents’ ability to burn wood.

“My contention is not that this is a bad law or not,” Gailey said. “It’s the fact that [the air district officials] make a broad statement that they’re there to bring down PM10 levels. Yet when I’ve done research it turns out they’ve never done any readings in Gilroy …The City Council is making a political decision, not a scientific one.”

He worries that the city will next target outdoor wood burning and barbecues, but environmental coordinator Jensema said “we have no plans right now to work on that at all.”

City Administrator Jay Baksa acknowledged that Gilroy can do little to reduce pollution caused by neighbors, but he said that does not absolve the city of its own duty.

“Air pollution is a regional issue, and since it’s a regional issue, all the cities have a moral and in some cases a legal responsibility to do our part,” he said. “We’re one of the few cities in the Bay Area that has not adopted this ordinance already. I think what this ordinance is trying to do is acknowledge that the City of Gilroy plays to a bigger crowd.”

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