Partial Multnomah County Wood-Burning Ban Pitched to Improve Air Quality

People who burn wood on winter inversion days but have an alternate source of heating could be fined under a proposed Multnomah County ordinance.

Two Multnomah County commissioners have proposed an ordinance that will ban the unnecessary use of wood stoves during winter inversion days, when air quality is poor.

Commissioner Sharon Meieran said that her colleague Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson had worked on the wood smoke issue in the Legislature and that the proposed ordinance is a critical first step in reducing this form of pollution, which is the largest source of small-particle air pollution in wintertime.

“It’s something that I’ve been interested in as a public health person as long as I can remember,” said Meieran, who is also an emergency room physician. “It seems like an area where we can actually make an impact.”

In the emergency department, Meieran said she has seen the effects of poor air quality firsthand, such as asthma and emphysema as well as heart disease. She said burning wood emits a “cocktail of pollutants.”

The wood stove ban would exempt low-income households and homes where wood smoke is the sole source of heat -- thus targeting fireplaces where wood is burnt for ambience even as weather patterns outside already make it more difficult to breathe.

Oregon winters are plagued by inversion, particularly in the Willamette Valley, when foul air gets trapped between the Coast Range and the Cascades, preventing fresh air from circulating.

The ordinance is intended primarily for education -- a resident would be warned twice of the violation before being issued a fine, and inversion days, while problematic, happen infrequently, only four on average in Multnomah County, according to Meieran.

Chris Hagerbaumer of the Oregon Environmental Council said many people with fireplaces don’t realize that they can not only greatly deteriorate the air quality outside the home -- a wood-burning stove can increase dust and particulate matter inside the home, contributing to respiratory ailments. “You’re immediately impacting your family as well,” Hagerbaumer said.

She said her organization had been part of a state work group to reduce the wood smoke problem statewide. One proposed solution -- assisting low- and middle-income households with grants to swap out their wood stoves for cleaner-burning heating sources -- failed to get funded in a tight budget environment.

Hagerbaumer said Washington County has already implemented an ordinance similar to the one from Vega Pederson and Meieran. Washington County’s air quality is worse and the EPA can block economic development if it falls out of compliance.

Meieran said that the EPA penalties were less of a concern in Multnomah County than simply taking steps to improve air quality and reduce preventable disease.

Ideally, Hagerbaumer said all homes would switch away from wood to a heating source that pollutes less and reduces carbon dioxide emissions, such as an electric heat pump. But even other carbon-combustion based heating sources such as propane, natural gas and heating oil give off much less soot and toxic particulates than wood.

“It’ll better educate residents,” Hagerbaumer said. “We need a longer-term solution.”

Reach Chris Gray at chris@thelundreport.org

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