Wednesday, October 16, 2013

State of Vermont Sues in Favor of Federal Pre-Emptive Regulations

Wood Boiler
from University of New Hampshire site on heating with wood
Please Regulate Woodburning at the National Level!

Vermont has joined a group of seven states that are suing the federal Environmental Protection Agency.  The states are attempting to force the EPA to regulate wood boilers.  For those of you who don't live in rural areas, here's how a New York State website describes wood boilers:

(Outdoor Wood Boilers) OWBs....are fuel burning devices (1) designed to burn wood or other fuels; (2) that the manufacturer specifies for outdoor installation or installation in structures not normally occupied by humans; and (3) that are used to heat building space and/or water through the distribution, typically through pipes, of a gas or liquid (e.g., water or water/antifreeze mixture) heated in the device. A typical unit looks like a small metal storage shed with a stack. OWBs can also be used to heat swimming pools, greenhouses, milk rooms, etc.

As the Wall Street Journal notes in its article about the lawsuit:

EPA data says emissions from wood-burning devices account for 13 percent of all soot pollution in the nation.  

As the University of New Hampshire cooperative extension website states:

The "classic" outdoor wood boilers that have been on the market for years have raised public health and environmental concerns. Fuel frequently burns incompletely, resulting in heavy smoke and high emissions.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the stacks on these devices are often shorter than surrounding structures and do not disperse smoke adequately, concentrating it near the ground.

The illustration above is from the New Hampshire website.

State's Rights

I would guess that half the posts on this blog concern Vermont attempting to regulate nuclear safety, and fighting the idea that nuclear safety is regulated at the federal level.  Okay.  Acknowledged.  "State's Rights" are important to Vermont.

Clearly, Vermont thinks it has the expertise to regulate nuclear energy, but it also seems to think that the federal government had better step in and regulate the far more complex situation of wood boilers.  States can't be expected to have their own regulations about such things.

Well, actually....wrong.

Vermont Level of Responsibility?

Vermont actually has a half-hearted attempt to regulate wood boilers.  There's a law (not enforced, apparently) outlawing old wood boilers within 200 feet of a residence or healthcare facility.  There's also some money to help people put in new wood boilers. It is first-come first-serve at obtaining the money.

As the Vermont Air Pollution Control Division (APCD)  describes the program:

 “One way you can look at this is as a friendly-neighbor program,” said Dick Valentinetti of the APCD.

Other States Take More Responsibility

Other states have taken stronger measures.

Washington State has outlawed wood boilers.  From the Washington State FAQ

Are any outdoor wood-fired hydronic heaters legal in Washington?
Not at this time.

New Hampshire has state-level regulations controlling wood boilers. These regulations include stack height, setbacks, and fuel use.

Maryland says it is illegal to own and operate this type of equipment in Maryland. However, in fact, Maryland only responds to complaints about such boilers.

If a unit is causing a big problem, we can issue an order to shut it down.

In Fairness to Vermont

Bruegel illustration of cat-belling
It's hard to regulate wood boilers.  Some of them are used responsibly, some of them pollute entire valleys in the winter. (I know.  I've driven through such valleys.)

Maybe it is politically expedient to let Uncle Sam take the heat on this one.  As the WSJ article explains about New York State:

New York state adopted regulations in April 2011 to require all new wood-fired boilers sold in the state to burn at least 90 percent cleaner than older models. A plan to extend the rules to existing boilers was shelved after a public outcry, particularly in rural areas of northern New York where numerous farms and homes that rely on the heaters would be forced to pay thousands of dollars to replace them.

Clearly, the people in Montpelier want the Federal Government to bell the cat about wood boilers.  If the federal government acts:
  • The right hand of the people in Montpelier can encourage the use of wood boilers to meet Vermont's renewable energy plan
  • Montpelier's left hand can sue to restrict the use of wood boilers at the federal level.  

This could work, I guess.

In Fairness to Vermont Yankee

Perhaps we need a federal Wood Boiler Act, like the Atomic Energy Act. This new act would move wood boiler regulation to the federal level because it is so complicated. Stack height!  Distance from houses! Particulate measurements!  Far too complicated for a state to regulate.

Once the Federal Wood Boiler Act was passed, we could expect the Vermont legislature to challenge the federal jurisdiction.

At that point, our legislature might find the political courage to regulate wood boilers, instead of merely filing lawsuits against the federal government.


Anonymous said...

Wood burning is probably the second-most damaging process to the environment (after coal burning). Incomplete combustion of wood on a large scale produces huge amounts of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which includes a broad swath of compounds, some of which are carcinogenic, teratogenic, and mutagenic. In terms of effects on human health, widespread use of wood as a fuel causes harm that dwarfs anything nuclear could ever cause. Those who advocate industrial-scale burning of wood products are no friend of the environment, and no friend of human health.

Robert said...

Oh, please after seeing that let the people burn oil! And why is that much worse smoke than a campfire?

But seriously, if VY had been allowed to stay open would it have been better for people in Vermont to have heat pumps for chilly days and then burn oil only when it is bitter cold? Even though you don't need AC up there, it might still benefit because fossil fuel would only be used on the coldest days.

Meredith Angwin said...

Thank you for your comments. I agree with both of you! Heat pumps plus oil supplement would be far better.

These boilers are basically loaded up and run for many hours. As you can see, they can make amazing quantities of smoke. Which is a health hazard.

In fairness to boiler owners, however, it depends on their location. I have a friend who was born in his family's farmhouse, which was down by the road. When he inherited the farm (I think it is about 100 acres) he built his own house on the top of a hill. There is no other house on the property. He uses a wood boiler. When I was there, it looked like the smoke dispersed pretty fast on that hill. And there really is nobody nearby to bother (except his own house, and he was careful about the siting). On the other hand, if he was using the same boiler while still living in a farm house at the bottom of the hill, it could be a real pollution problem for the whole valley.

I don't like wood boilers, but it is going to be hard to ban them in the Northeast. They can be used responsibly, if the legislature had the courage to make reasonable rules for them.

Anonymous said...

Any campfire I have ever built made nowhere near the amount of smoke shown in that picture. Maybe I'm just smarter about how I make it, but I don't think so. But all this is small potatoes, in actual fact. I saw a study where if the generated energy from VY were to be replaced with even the most modern wood-fired boilers, you'd end up cutting down all the timber in Vermont in a couple of years. So much for that pipe dream.

Lorraine Jacobs said...

Oh my, that's a very thick smoke! It is really essential that those who are using boilers should make sure that they are getting those that are qualified and approved by the EPA. We should take care of our environment as we are protecting ourselves from getting cold. If Vermont will be regulating the usage of these boiler, then that would be fine because they are just concerned of the welfare of the community and I also hope that the people will take their part on this.

Robert said...

I bring up burning oil because I know that in Maine, many communities do not have gas lines but all have electricity (people cook electrically). I thought maybe Vermont might be like that too, so that is why I mentioned oil on frigid days. Heat pumps are expensive, but actually they benefit seniors. Since they are not as hot as furnaces, they do not dry out sensitive skin that many seniors have. Some heat pumps have electric heaters for very cold days but that is not economical - especially since you soon will not have VY.

Meredith Angwin said...

I rarely post comments that include a link to a commercial product, but I posted Lorraine Jacobs comment because it is important that wood boilers be regulated and used responsibly.

Robert, very few places in Vermont have gas lines. There is one gas line into the state in the Burlington area and a little south. I live in a rather thickly settled area near White River Junction and across the river from Dartmouth College. No gas line and no near-term plans for getting such a thing. We have many local oil delivery businesses. I have a heating oil tank in my basement. Most people have heating oil or propane.

Oddly for the legislature's plans for getting off of fossil fuels, to phase out fossil fuels, to phase them out you need MORE electricity (heat pumps, for example) not less. And, as you say, we won't have Vermont Yankee.

Robert said...

Merdith, something that might have worked: Back in the in our area in the 80s Duquesne Light just started up Beaver Valley 2. All of the sudden DL started to promote that people get heat pumps. My parents bought one and when the DL man came over to look at it so we could get discounts, he told me that since we did not have electric furnaces in steel mills as much, they wanted to create more demand for the electricity from Beaver Valley. He told me that one of the reasons they built BV was for steel mills that soon closed. Could some program like that have helped create demand for Vermont Yankee and thus keep the place? It might be different here though, as most summers we do need air conditioning. By the way, our heat pump often had a hard time "making up its mind" that is, when to turn on the heat pump or the gas furnace but with newer models that is not as much of a problem. By the way, when my dad retired, the not as hot heat did help with the dry skin, something that will help when Vermont has a lot of seniors.