Oregon House Approves Account to Phase Out Dirty Wood Stoves

The account will open with no dollars attached -- awaiting passage of another bill with funding from the state or private sources.

The House passed a bill 54-4 on Wednesday, setting up a Residential Solid Fuel Heating Air Quality Improvement Fund, which will give grants to homeowners and others to help them switch away from dirty wood stoves to cleaner sources of heating.

The chief sponsor, Rep. Mark Johnson, R-Hood River, shepherded an earlier bill through in 2015 that set up a task force to find ways to alleviate the problem of wood smoke, which is particularly bad public health risk in the Willamette Valley.

The catch is that House Bill 2748 does not include funding -- although Johnson said private manufacturers have shown interest in pledging dollars to the fund, since that would make it easier to allow more industrial development without running afoul of the Environmental Protection Agency. HB 2748 still must pass the Senate.

Johnson said air quality in Washington County was just under the threshold for federal intervention. If air pollution gets any worse, the EPA could block new factories or other developments that might cause pollution.

Angela Crowley-Koch of the Oregon Environmental Council told The Lund Report that a second bill, House Bill 2725, would put state funds into the account, which will have to come from the Committee on Ways & Means. It’s unclear if the state will put any funds in the account this biennium.

Wood smoke causes irritation to eyes, throat, sinuses, and lungs and can contribute to chronic lung diseases such as bronchitis and emphysema, as well as cancer.

Four Lane County Democrats opposed the bill after Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, argued that the bill was too restrictive to provide practical solutions for working-class people who currently heat their homes with wood.

Holvey said that the logging town of Oakridge, high in the Western Cascade mountains, has run afoul of the Clean Air Act before, which prevented the community from opening new sawmills.

Many of the townsfolk couldn’t afford to change heating sources, so a solution was devised that provided access to clean, dry wood -- an improvement over wet and green wood which causes more smoke and soot. That method produced cleaner air that allowed Oakridge to come back into compliance with federal air pollution laws.

“Dry fuel would be a beneficial use,” said Holvey, but House Bill 2745 may not cover such a compromise because it stipulates that funds should support heating systems that have been certified by the Department of Environmental Quality, unlike many older wood stoves.

Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, said she and the other sponsors of HB 2745, including Johnson and Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, agreed with Holvey that the bill should be more flexible, but that amendment could occur in the Senate.

Other communities have been able to start programs that helped clean up the air while phasing out those older stoves.

Chris Hagerbaumer of the Oregon Environmental Council testified that before starting a wood stove replacement program in 2000, the city of Pendleton surveyed its residents and found that there were about 800 uncertified wood stoves in the city and that a third of the survey respondents had experienced health problems due to air pollution.

A combination of grants allowed Pendleton to work with residents to provide interest-free loans to replace 186 wood stoves with new EPA-certified heating systems, including 142 natural gas stoves, 22 wood stoves, 12 pellet stoves and 10 electric stoves.

Reach Chris Gray at chris@thelundreport.org.

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