Draft wood smoke ordinance draws support, questions at first community meeting

November 9, 2017

Environmental Health Director Jae Douglas talks to Corbett couple Malcolm and Kathie Freund.

Commissioners and environmental health experts met with residents in east Multnomah County this week for the first of three public hearings on a proposal to reduce wood burning during the worst of this winter’s bad air quality days.

The ordinance would be in effect each year from Oct. 1 through Feb. 31. Health officials would look to the National Weather Service to identify impending “inversion” days — when the air stagnates and pollution builds, usually three to five times a year -- and then issue a no-burn notice to residents.

The ordinance would exempt anyone using wood as their sole source of heat, anyone who is low-income, and anyone using an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved wood pellet stove. Enforcement would be complaint-driven. The first and second violation would trigger a certified mailing with educational materials about clean burning and pollution. Fines would begin on a third violation.

Washington County, Eugene, Medford, Klamath Falls and Pendleton have all passed similar ordinances as local jurisdictions struggle to remain in compliance with federal air pollution limits.

“There are hardly any of those things where you get such a big impact from such a modest investment,” Environmental Health Director Jae Douglas said during Tuesday’s meeting at the Fairview Community Center. Douglas was joined by Commissioners Jessica Vega Pederson, Sharon Meieran and Lori Stegmann.

Vega Pederson has worked on limiting wood smoke pollution since her time in the Oregon Legislature. Without proactive limits, she said, poor air quality in the region could trigger a more severe response from the EPA, and potentially slow economic development.

“If we’re out of compliance, they step in and put restrictions on development, more restrictive than what we’re talking about doing here,” she said Tuesday.

Residents heard from Air Pollution Policy Coordinator Matt Hoffman about why the county is proposing the ordinance.

“We can’t choose the air we breathe, so we must take a look at what’s in it,” he said.

Following the Clean Air Act, the EPA began regulating six air pollutants including lead, ozone and particulate matter. The chemicals that contribute to particulate matter are often emitted from wood smoke, power plants, industry and automobiles.

“Here in the Pacific Northwest we struggle with particulate matter 2.5, a very fine particulate that tends to pick up others pollutants in the air and takes those deep into our lungs,” Hoffman said. “This is particularly nasty stuff.”  

While industrial emissions account for about 1 percent of the county’s overall excess cancer risk from air pollution, wood smoke accounts for 20 percent, on par with emissions from cars and commercial trucks. In recent years the county has come close to exceeding its federal cap on particulate matter, and Hoffman warned the problem would only grow along with the population.

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson talks about the state's efforts to improve air quality

Multnomah County already runs a weatherization program for low-income residents, so families need less fuel to warm their homes. It has also launched an outreach campaign to educate residents on how to burn wood cleaner, and to know when the air quality is so poor that wood burning might make people sick.

“Of course I like a nice warm fire,” Hoffman said. “But I’m not going to burn on a day it would hurt my neighbors.”

Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines said those who suffer most during poor air quality days are children, seniors, and people with underlying heart and lung problems. Heart disease and lung problems such as bronchitis, emphysema and asthma are among the top causes of death in Multnomah County.

Commissioner Stegmann, who represents east Multnomah County, encouraged her neighbors to speak up about concerns and offer ideas about how to improve air quality. “I want to balance economic development with individual needs,” she said. “I know many people use wood stoves as their sole source of heat.”

Victoria Purvine of Corbett said she opposes the ordinance. “It seems they have a problem in Portland, but you say our wood stoves are causing all of this,” she said, suggesting the Portland metro area should control vehicle emissions before cracking down on people who like a fire on cold winter days.

Malcolm and Kathie Freund, lifelong Oregonians who have lived in Corbett for the past 50 years, said they use a wood stove to heat their house. They invested in a cleaner-burning wood stove that meets EPA standards three years ago. “We burn 24 hours, seven days a week, but you can’t see any smoke coming out,” Kathie Freund said.

“Then your household would be exempt,” Air Pollution Policy Coordinator Hoffman said. “We can’t come in with an ordinance that says you can’t heat your home.”

Gresham resident Celeste Ets-Hokin said she moved two years ago from San Francisco, where burning is restricted on poor air quality days. She supports a similar ordinance for Multnomah County. “I hope we can have something here that’s accepted,” she said.

“I’m surprised at how mild the ask is here,” said resident Rick Sanders. “There’s not a hard boundary in our air shed. Anyone who was here 30 or 40 years ago, and saw the entire Portland area affected by the factories in Camas, knows that really clearly.”

Fairview Mayor Ted Tosterud said he supported the concept, but asked the county to partner with small towns like his to educate residents and enforce the ordinance. He also raised two concerns: Would the county be effective at notifying people who don’t have TV, internet or cellphones of an upcoming curtailment day? And he worried that low-income families might feel embarrassed to burn wood on days when their more affluent neighbors could not.

“I support clean air. I always have, always will,” he said. “I support your ordinance, but this second one gets to me. It’s not fair to the citizens to say, ‘Hey I’m exempt because I don’t make enough money.’”  Environmental Health Director Douglas thanked the Mayor.

“You are raising a good point,” she said, promising her staff would work on strategies to address his concerns.

Commissioner Meieran said the commissioners are seeking feedback to inform a formal proposal. “We have a draft ordinance, but that doesn’t mean things can’t change,” she said. “So we really want to hear from you.”

People are encouraged to submit comments and questions online, or attend one of two upcoming community meetings:

  • November 16, 6:30 – 8 p.m., at the Linnton Community Center, 10614 N.W. St. Helens Rd., Portland
  • December 7, 9:30 – 11 a.m. at the Multnomah Building, 501 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland