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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Council Wants To Study Wood Burning More, Will Revisit Recommendations in April

Dr. Tom Cahill has been working with the city since October on establishing guidelines for wood burning that will be based on solid scientific foundations that enable people's health issues to be addressed while at the same time respecting people's rights to the fullest extent possible.

The city council last night heard from a wide variety of experts, many of whom have been in countless hours on the issue of wood burning.

In the end, they adopted Dr. Cahill's measured approach. What Dr. Cahill recommends at this point in time is that given the fact it is already January, the city is not going to implement any new policies this burn year. So at this point, why rush the decision?

His view is that whatever occurs, needs to be done based on the best science possible and since the scientific studies have not been conclusive as of yet, he urged the council to allow for the collection of additional data. It appears that data will take two forms. First, he has and is donating the use of two of his monitoring devices to the city. This will enable the city to have a centrally located monitoring device and one that roams.

There is concern by the citizens, the experts, and the council to determine what exactly is going on in the city. Many suggested the city not be treated as a one-size-fits all solution, that there might be parts of the city that are heavily impacted by smoke while others are unaffected. There is also the need to do more than just have two monitoring devices.

The second portion of a study will look at the impact of Sacramento's burn and no burn days to see how they impact particulate matter in the air. One thing that was noted is that much of Sacramento's air particulate matter is pollutants moving up from the San Joaquin Valley northward. In other words, they are having no burn days based on things that occur down south.

Dr. Cahill argued effectively that by moving the decision back to April, they will have more data at their disposal and can make a better informed decision.

Many members of the public came to speak on both sides of the issue. Those with health problems, once against laid out their concerns with wood burning. However, there were a large number of people who came forward in support of various compromises and ways to continue to burn.

One big issue that came up had to do with the phase-in toward EPA approved appliances and how that should occur. There was a general concern with cost to the consumer. The feeling was that if it was cost prohibitive it would discourage residents of Davis from upgrading and encourage them to rely on PG&E for their full heating needs. Moreover, many expressed the concern that regulations may be a moving a target. In other words, no one would want to invest in EPA approved appliances if there was even a possibility that the regulations would change and they would not be able to use the appliance that they invested a sizable amount of money into to purchase.

There were additional concerns raised about the practicality of six hour burn limits. First, from the standpoint of heating, you could not simply heat a home for six hours. Moreover, the difficulty in stopping the burning of wood makes it less than practical.

Finally, concern was expressed by staff and the public about how this would be enforced particularly if there are limits on types of appliances, length of burn, wind velocity, and other factors.

It was a good discussion. Members of the community with expertise on wood burning, including some in the commercial field, came forward to offer information and advice. It was one of the better discussions that I have witnessed before the city council.

In the end, council is moving forward on this in a measured and responsible fashion. They emphasized the need to implement policy based on hard scientific data.

Toward the end of the discussion, Councilmember Stephen Souza made a key point, he demonstrated the changes that have occurred in our understanding of health risks and practices. He cited for example in the 1970s, when the council met in the old City Hall, that people would smoke in council chambers. We would never see smoking in council chambers these days in part because of our recognition of the health impacts of second hand smoke and laws that prohibit smoking in public buildings. Moreover, now we recognize that even smoking near buildings can be a health risk. As our understandings of health impacts evolve, so too must our laws.

Councilmember Heystek made the further point that Davis is often on the forefront of these type of policies and we do not need to rely on what other communities are doing. We need to look toward Davis-centered approaches that fit our environmentally conscious community. Thus taking into account things like wind speed, taking into account that federal standards and state standards are minimum standards is an appropriate thing to do.

In the end, the council made the correct decision to wait until they had more data in order to do this correctly. One thing that was put into the motion was a provision to educate the community on this issue. That clearly needs to occur. I have been uncomfortable pushing forward with this without greater amount of citizen buy-in. I still think that the council, the NRC, and the experts are ahead of public opinion on this issue.

This is an issue that effects people in their home. One member of the community came up and talked about what an open hearth fireplace means to her. She described it as primal, the need for fire, likening it to the need to reproduce. She has regular picnics with her kids in front of the fire. She argued that the fireplace in her home was one of the reasons that she bought her home and she didn't want the fireplace taken from her. As she said this on the one hand, you could feel for her. On the other, you wonder what if this practice was actually putting her health and her children's health at risk without her knowledge. I would certainly like to do more research on these questions, but Davis is not the only community facing this issue. To some extent if Davis does not get out in front on this issue, the air management district will.

So last night, the council did the right thing given the timing of events , in holding off on a decision about wood burning. Clearly this issue is still a controversial issue in which the city needs to engage the community. The council now has a few more months to engage the community and hopefully they will use this time wisely.

---David M. Greenwald reporting