Effort to Regulate Wood Smoke Kindles Slow Burn

Environmental Commentary by Tim Rowland

The Environmental Protection Agency’s beef with fossil fuels is well documented, so up until now, the 10 percent of Americans who heat their homes with wood might have felt as if they were doing something noble by declaring their independence from coal, oil and gas.

Then last month, the agency informed wood-burners that they are part of the problem, not part of the solution, declaring that wood smoke is poisonous too, and telling the manufacturers of wood stoves and furnaces that they’ll have to start making (more expensive) cleaner-burning models.

To the firewood set, it was a bit like being a dieter who’s been eating granola all this time, only to find out that it has the same amount of fat as a cheeseburger.

In its new regulatory documents, the EPA noted that “Residential wood smoke emissions are a significant national air pollution problem and human health issue.”

In one sense, this won’t be news to anyone who has been seated downwind of a campfire. But, practically, aesthetically and emotionally, wood fires burn deep in the American soul in ways that other energy sources do not. No one ever chatted with a neighbor for 20 minutes over the best way to stack coal.

So it’s understandable that several wood-burning states are not taking the orders well. Missouri and Michigan have barred their own environmental agencies from enforcing the new regulations, and four other states, including Virginia, appear ready to follow suit.

Rural areas fear that the EPA’s action will increase the cost of burning wood, largely for a segment of the population that can least afford it.

The EPA counters that each $1 in new expenses will save $100 in health care costs. This statistic will sound fishy to the wood-burning public, and in any event would be difficult to prove. Nor does it consider, in a nation that doesn’t’t get enough exercise, the health benefits of cutting, splitting and hauling one’s own fuel.

Further, the problems of burning wood that have been mentioned both anecdotally and by the EPA appear to be more of a zoning issue than a public health issue. An outside furnace, which indeed can belch a considerable amount of smoke, is probably not a good idea in a subdivision with quarter-acre lots. But this is a nonissue in much of the countryside where the nearest neighbor is not a quarter acre but a quarter mile away.

The EPA has an odd ally where frowning on firewood is concerned: the fossil fuel industry, which is always critical of any energy not produced by fossil fuel. Firewood, for example, stands accused of producing more carbon when it burns than coal, which can be true, particularly if the wood has not been properly dried. But well-seasoned wood and wood pellets are dry to the point of rivaling coal for efficiency.

The real benefit of wood, however, is that trees spend their entire lives locking up carbon, meaning that even when burned they are, in the grand scheme of things, carbon neutral. (These equations can get complex; burning of course releases carbon and produces greenhouse gases, but so does allowing a tree to die and rot.)

But perhaps the biggest appeal of firewood has nothing to do with greenhouse metrics or the triceps workout that comes with splitting logs. It’s the same appeal that comes from disconnecting from our dependency on outside corporations that send us bills — the same satisfaction that comes from growing our own vegetables or raising chickens that supply the morning meal.

We stress the importance of knowing where our food comes, but it can be just as interesting to discover where our fuel comes from. Different wood produces different amounts of heat. Some leave a lot of ash, some burn clean. Maple will split neatly, sycamore won’t split at all. The wood of red oak is actually red. Who knew?

There’s a skill to felling a tree, to stacking and seasoning wood, to burning a proper ratio of hardwood to pine. Those who harvest their own wood speak of it not as work, but as a religious experience. Enjoying the forest and its creations without sacrificing productivity satisfies our yearnings for both work and play.

None of this will fit into an EPA report, of course. And obviously, furnaces and stoves that burn cleaner are in everyone’s interest so long as they don’t go to expensive extremes. But as a fuel, wood is unique, so it would be nice if agencies could look beyond the world of mathematical equations in their assessments. Besides, it’s never wise to pick a fight with someone with an ax.

Tim Rowland is a newspaper columnist and author of “Maryland’s Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine and Mountaineering.” Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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