The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Burning Issue For Our Community

Programming note: Join the Vanguard tonight on KDRT 101.5 FM from 6 pm to 7 pm, as I host Alan Pryor who is one of the leaders in the fight to ban wood burning. You can call in with questions at 792-1648.

On July 29, 2008, the Davis City Council unanimously voted to recommend to the Natural Resources Commission to draft a resolution that would implement a full ban on wood burning in Davis with an exemption for hardship.

I will say at the onset here, that I am fully in support of that decision, particularly with such an exemption for people of lower income backgrounds who rely on wood burning as a cheaper means by which to heat their homes in the winter.

However, at the time I was concerned about the way in which this issue had been dealt with by the city, the city council, and the local paper--or that is, not dealt. I got up to speak before city council on the night of July 29, 2008, to recommend two things. First, that we need exemptions for people with hardships. And second, that we needed better outreach before this meeting.

On the morning of July 29, I wrote this article in the Vanguard. It essentially lays out my position on the technical aspects of this issue. But I believe that for many in this community, they did not know this issue was even under consideration until that article appeared the Vanguard and subsequently an article in the Davis Enterprise on July 31, 2008.

Following that article, the dam broke loose, and there have been several op-eds in the Enterprise, numerous letters to the editor, and commentary by Bob Dunning.

This is all a healthy part of the democratic process, but this should have happened before the July 29, 2008 meeting. This is an issue that effects so many in our community on both sides of the fence. Large numbers of people have come forward to tell of their health problems that they suffer from wood burning smoke during the winter months. They came before the council on that evening to present their compelling cases, and it is my belief that the council was moved by those testimonies and it enabled them to take tougher action that they were probably prepared to do prior to the meeting.

Unfortunately, there is also a group of people in this community who feel strongly the other way, and their voices were not heard on that night.

In yesterday's Enterprise for example, George Galamba suggests what he terms a more measured approach:
It is too bad that we are unable to see shades of gray in the debate. Yes, burning wood (or gas, oil, coal, etc.) does produce smoke, and smoke is a pollutant. But there is a bit of difference between burning a branch that was blown down a few months ago in an open-hearth fireplace and burning seasoned wood in an EPA-certified stove.

Rather than a draconian ban on burning all wood, why not a measured response to the problem, which is not wood, but rather smoke? I would like to offer a few suggestions:

-- If it is not already the law, ban open-hearth fireplaces in new construction. Why put a fireplace in a house and then tell the new owners that they can't use it?

-- As properties change hands, require that fireplaces be retrofitted with approved appliances or bricked up.

-- Prohibit burning on days when the air is polluted.

-- Issue burning permits that would require attendance at a workshop on how to burn cleanly.
In many ways it was Thomas Cahill editorial on August 5, 2008 that lit the fire.

He writes:
"One of the greatest threats to effective environmental progress is asking the public to bear the cost of environmental actions that later turn out to be unnecessary or unsupported by current science. Such errors erode the political will to do the hard and necessary environmental tasks. Think of the current credibility of the FDA, for example, after it erroneously labeled tomatoes as the salmonella culprit.

Davis is in danger of sliding down this slippery slope in instituting a total ban on wood burning when the science is not supportive of such an action."
He argues that Davis during the winter months has low levels of Wood smoke and even during the severe problems during this summer, there were no notable increases in doctors' visits or hospital admissions.
"There are two problems. One is that the city of Davis' Natural Resources Commission did not have key documents that have actually determined the surprisingly low levels of wood smoke in Davis in winter, a 55-page report submitted to the City Council in March 15, 1995. This work shows that even in the worst stagnation periods, Davis represents a tiny enhancement over the valleywide winter particulate pollution, which is largely caused by diesels and smoking cars.

In addition, for the past month we have been breathing smoke from the much more dangerous wildfires at levels roughly 100 to 200 times what which we saw during our worst stagnation period, the cold, hazy day in Davis on Dec. 23, 1995.

Yet Glennah Trochet, M.D., Sacramento County's health officer, noted no increases in doctors' visits or hospital admissions from the present wood smoke even in the worst period of mid- to late June 2008."
On the other hand, perhaps that should not be the measure of such problems. Many people I know cranked their air conditioning up and simply stayed inside during the horrid smoke and incessant heat of the early portion of this summer.

Alan Pryor, who will be my guest tonight on KDRT, had a response Op-Ed on August 14, 2008.

Mr. Pryor argues that:
"Cahill made three claims that are unfortunately not substantiated by the older data he presented nor accepted by the larger scientific community."
He then refutes Mr. Cahill's objections.
"Firstly, Cahill implies that wood smoke is not as harmful as suspected or represented... In that article, a county health officer said they had not yet observed a local jump in hospital emergency admissions due to respiratory difficulties during the recent weeks of wildfire- induced wood smoke pollution. There was no data to support that observation and that was the only item in that article that could be possibly be construed to minimize the hazards of wood smoke pollution.

In fact, the actual thrust of that article was to warn people how dangerous were the then-current levels of wood smoke pollution levels and. Both Kent Pinkerton, a UC Davis professor and expert on the health effects of air pollutants, and Larry Greene, executive officer of the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, are extensively quoted in the same article, pointing out the severe adverse health effects of wood smoke. "
"Secondly, Cahill further claims his own research shows wood smoke concentrations are at "surprisingly low levels" in Davis and thus do not constitute a major pollution or health problem. This observation was based solely on a one-time measurement of air quality taken at only two different points in Davis on a single winter day about 13 years ago... The Yolo-Solano AQMD now estimates that, on average, about one-third of current wintertime particulate pollution in Davis is due to residential wood smoke. In Sacramento, the percentage of particulate air pollution due to residential wood - burning in winter is closer to 50 percent. "
"Cahill also claims we can solve any "residual" wood smoke problems that might exist simply by heeding the "more stringent" "Spare the Air" restrictions on wood - burning that are periodically issued by the Sacramento Air Quality Management District. Well, that certainly sounds like a reasonable idea.

Unfortunately, the Sacramento AQMD issued only eight mandatory alerts last winter for restricting open-hearth fireplaces and no alerts at all restricting the use of EPA Phase II stoves. That means that during the unrestricted 112 days of the 120-day burn season (from Nov. 1 through Feb. 28), anyone in Davis could still burn an open-hearth fireplace as long as they wanted, at any time and anywhere — even next to a school, hospital, senior center or the home of an asthmatic child or senior. Similarly, an EPA Phase II stove actually could operate without any restriction whatsoever."
The debate is interesting, informative, and necessary. I encourage people to read the full op-eds from August 5 and August 14, in addition to the feature article from Claire St. John that appeared last Thursday in the Davis Enterprise.

However, again, I want to go back a step. This debate should have occurred before the July 29, 2008 City Council meeting. That is not to say the ordinance that will emerge from the NRC will be a done deal any time soon. There will be plenty of time to debate, but it would have been helpful to have a full debate prior to the direction to the NRC.

It is easy for a city like Davis to meet the basic Brown Act requirements for open meetings. Posting notices with able lee-time are sufficient for those requirements. But as I said at the July 29 meeting, the Brown Act should be considered the bare minimum standard for public notification, not the extent to which they go to inform the public on issues that they know will generate public debate. And this was clearly an issue that would. The debate that has emerged in the last month bears out my concerns at that time.

The city, in my estimation, does not make use of its considerable power of the bully-pulpit. It is easy to sit back and rely on reporters to report on the City Council meetings. However, in fairness to the Enterprise, at best one receives the agenda on Thursday late afternoon, that leaves Friday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday to report on anything that has to do with the council's agenda. That is not a lot of time to warn the public and to have any sort of public debate. And so, we often see debates develop after the fact.

Fact of the matter is that the city can write its own story and submit it to the newspaper whenever it wants and the the newspaper is pretty accommodating. Heck, they could submit it to the Vanguard and nine times out of ten, I would probably run it as well.

I think it would have been helpful had the George Galamba's and the Thomas Cahill's of Davis had been able to weigh in on the meeting on July 29, perhaps the council would have given the same recommendation, perhaps not. But at least they would have had their say.

I know they will get their say later on in this process, that is the justification that you will hear for the way this has unfolded, but as I have discovered, the further down the field they run with the ball, the harder it is to stop forward progress. Once they get the ball in field goal range, it is all a matter of damage control.

The debate on this issue will fortunately go on, the public will learn much more about this issue before the final vote is taken, it seems likely that the final vote will be considerably weaker than the direction given in late July. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that this is a serious health issue.

In last week's Davis Enterprise article, Jennifer Anderson of Ace Hardware was quote, among other things she suggested that the city of Davis stay out of the issue.
"Anderson said the YSAQMD should be responsible for regulating wood burning.

'It would be my dream to just leave it to the Yolo Solano Air Quality realm and not bring it into local politics, because that's what they're there for,' she said."
As I understand the issue however, the YSAQMD sets emission standards, it does not regulate wood burning or set policy for the city. The local jurisdictions are in charge of setting such policies.

I point this out because these are issues that must be fully vetted in public and explained. What are the emissions requirements that the city has no control over and what policies are needed in order to meet those standards.

The next question is whether those standards are tough enough. Just like the Brown Act, emissions standards can be minimum requirements rather than limitations on regulations. They are often based as much on political expediency as they are on scientific premises. We need to sort through and determine whether we need to simply adhere to these standards or whether we as the city of Davis, need to set our own in order to meet the health needs of the population.

Regardless, these questions still need to be sorted out and the city has a duty to educate the public on this issue. If the city believes that wood burning represents a health threat, then they should use the power of the bully-pulpit to communicate that, rather than sit back and let those who like the comfort of burning dictate the terms of this debate.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting