In a move that could burn a hole in the pocket of property owners looking to sell or rent their homes, Bay Area air quality officials are ratcheting up their campaign against smoke pollution with a proposal aimed at phasing out the old-fashioned fireplace.
Bay Area homes with wood-burning fireplaces could not be sold or rented unless they were equipped with cleaner fuels, such as gas, under the first proposal of its kind in California. Retrofit costs could range from hundreds of dollars to more than $3,000 — depending on the home and device installed.
Air officials also propose banning all wood-burning devices — whether or not they’re certified by the federal Environmental Protection Agency — in new construction, effective Nov. 1. Currently, only open hearth fireplaces in new buildings are banned.
The move by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has fueled a debate on how far government should go in limiting wood burning to reduce public exposure to smoke. It also serves as an acknowledgment that Spare the Air alerts designed to curb such activities are difficult to enforce. The rule would add a financial burden to homeowners, but proponents say the ban is worth it to protect people.
The debate begins to unfold Wednesday as the nine-county air district holds the first of nine public workshops on proposals to reduce smoke in the Bay Area. The first is in Morgan Hill in Santa Clara County.
The Marin County meeting is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. April 13 at San Rafael City Hall, 1400 Fifth Ave.
The proposal will be fine-tuned after the workshops, reviewed by air district staff and then presented to the board at a later date. There is no timetable on a vote for adoption of the rules.
Tyler Baldwin, a San Jose resident preparing to sell his home, said he would never use his fireplace on days when it is banned, but he resents the proposal.
“They are forcing steep costs on thousands of people who are not burning on Spare the Air days and who just want to sell their home,” Baldwin said. “If I obey the law not to burn on certain days, it’s none of their business what I use to burn in my home.”
Air quality regulators and clean air advocates say the move protects people from tiny wood smoke particles that can lodge deep in human lungs and cause lung and heart diseases, asthma attacks and strokes.
“Removing polluting devices during point of sale is good public health policy,” said Jenny Bard, a spokeswoman for the American Lung Association in California. “Just like we need to take polluting cars off the road, we need to prohibit polluting devices from being used.”
‘A DOABLE WAY’
A 2007 rule outlawed burning wood on nights that the district predicts fine particle pollution concentrations will violate federal public health standards. This new proposal goes much further.
It recommends that after Nov. 1, 2016, Bay Area homes and commercial buildings could not be sold if they contained old fireplaces, stoves or other wood-burning devices that failed to meet federal EPA emission standards.
A home seller could comply by replacing an open hearth fireplace with one fueled by clean natural gas or electricity, a closed-loop insert that is typically encased in glass, or an EPA-certified stove. A property seller also would have the option of making the old fireplace inoperable, for example by sealing it off with bricks, said Wayne Kino, the air district’s director of enforcement.
“We thought of this as a doable way of trying to get our wood-burning emissions in the Bay Area ratcheted down over time,” Kino said. “Our winter air quality has improved significantly, but we still have a regional problem with fine particulates.”
The federal government continues to give the Bay Area a failing grade for meeting the public health standard for fine particulates. The air district had six days of unhealthy particulates in the most recent Spare the Air season from Nov. 1 through Feb. 28, 15 in the 2013-14 season, and a lone bad air day in 2012-13. Real estate industry representatives say the requirement would cost property owners too much for too small a benefit.
“This is a bad solution looking for a problem,” said David Stark, public affairs director of the East Bay Association of Realtors, which is active in southern and eastern Alameda County. “Why don’t they focus on the people burning illegally on no-burn days instead of imposing a financial burden on thousands of people?”
Air district officials say that while most people comply with the law, some don’t, and it’s impossible to catch all violators among the 1.4 million Bay Area homes with wood fireplaces and stoves. District officials said they worry about the health of people in small valleys, where just one or two smoky fireplaces can foul air in a neighborhood.
“The air can be unhealthy in those localized areas even (though) high readings aren’t picked up by our regional system of monitors,” said Kristine Roselius, a district spokeswoman.
Last winter, the air district received 3,739 public complaints about wood burning and issued 155 tickets to burn violators. First-time violators are given a choice of paying a $100 fine or taking an online smoke-education class. Second-time offenders are fined $500.
Earlier this month, the air district reported that for the seventh straight year, Marin led Bay Area counties in the number of complaints — 865 — filed during the district’s winter “Spare the Air” days when burning in fireplaces is prohibited. Contra Costa County was a distant second with 576.
Marin has led the category every year since the inception of the program.