Natural but deadly: Huge gaps in US rules for wood-stove smoke exposed

The government spent millions subsidizing new wood heaters supposed to burn more cleanly. But an investigation has discovered critical flaws

Natural but deadly: Huge gaps in US rules for wood-stove smoke exposed
On cold days in Fairbanks, Alaska, wood smoke and ice fog becomes trapped close to the ground. (Design Pics Inc / Alamy)

Published in the Guardian, Alaska Public Media

Glenn Helkenn lives in a spruce forest, in a tiny log cabin he built himself on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Alaska’s third largest city.

Give him an hour and a handsaw and Helkenn says he can harvest enough firewood to heat his 96 square-foot home for a couple of days, even when the temperature drops to -40 F. For him, it’s about more than free fuel.

“It is what I enjoy doing,” Helkenn said. “You know, it’s the fresh air. It’s the time out in the woods. It’s the snowshoeing. It’s the exercise.”

The trouble is about 12,000 much larger Fairbanks-area homes heat with wood too. The city is partially ringed by hills, so smoke can get trapped in low-lying neighborhoods for days or weeks.

Fairbanks has some of the dirtiest air in the country, in large part due to smoke from wood stoves. Wood smoke is a serious health threat. It emits high levels of fine-particle pollution that can be inhaled deep into the lungs, exacerbating respiratory problems like asthma and increasing the risk of premature death from heart attacks and strokes.

In 2015, the U.S. government required that newer models of wood stoves perform better and began spending millions of dollars to subsidize the transition away from older models. Now, an investigation by state environment officials is revealing a critical flaw in that plan: The latest stoves might not be any less polluting than the previous ones.

A review of 250 wood-burning stove certifications found unexplained data omissions and atypical lab practices. When the officials retested about a dozen of the heaters in their own labs, they were not able to reproduce the certification results. They found many stoves were polluting as much as the previous models. One was producing so much pollution that it wouldn’t have met the Environmental Protection Agency’s first-ever standards from 1988.

“We pulled the test reports that are supposed to be publicly posted and we compared — did this certification report meet all the rules? And we couldn’t find any that actually met all the rules,” said Cindy Heil, an air official with Alaska’s department of environmental conservation. “That’s a problem.”

Alaska, along with a group of Northeast air regulators called Nescaum, expanded the review and concluded the certification procedures and EPA’s oversight of them are a “systemic failure.”

As long as the stove review process continues virtually unsupervised, people inhaling wood smoke from the stoves will continue to get sick and die early, not just in Alaska but around the United States, the state officials said.

Fairbanks resident Patrice Lee has been campaigning for cleaner air for 14 years, since her son, who was born with heart defects, collapsed outside his high school on an especially smoky day.

Lee says millions of dollars have been wasted trying to get people to burn wood more cleanly when it would have been better spent switching them to another fuel.

“We have a whole generation of young people who may never achieve their full lung capacity, or even potentially their cognitive potential, because they’ve been breathing this smoke,” Lee said.

Lee says the problem isn’t just stove technology. Wet wood sends more particulates up the smoke stack, so Fairbanks is steeped in public service messages about how to split and store firewood. A new kiln in town dries firewood for three days before it’s offered for sale. A local stove dealership offers classes every Saturday to ensure residents know how to operate their stoves for minimal pollution.

And yet Lee can drive around her city on a cold day and see chimneys emitting thick plumes. “This house right here is a habitual offender. Just burns and burns and burns,” she said, pointing out a home in an older neighborhood. An air sensor there, on the porch of an 86-year-old woman, regularly registers the worst readings in Fairbanks, Lee said.

Lee doubts the problem will be solved in her lifetime. The attempts to clean up Fairbanks’ air are a story of half measures, technology that didn’t pan out, administrative blunders and political resistance. It’s also been hard for many to accept that burning wood — an activity that seems so wholesome and close to the land — should be subject to intense regulation.

Lee says her neighbors are nice people who believe that what they do on their property is their own business.

“Their smoke all blows onto my property,” she said. “My most personal property is my body. And when I can’t avoid smoke, that’s invading the most personal property I have.”

Airborne particulates from burning wood in homes may be to blame for 10,000 to 40,000 premature deaths annually in the United States, according to two studies. In 2017, the particle pollution from residential wood heating was four times higher than the particle pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Only about 4% of residential heating in the United States is from wood. But that wood heating is responsible for more particulate pollution than any other source – 22%.

People in Fairbanks have limited options. Most residents who have wood stoves use them to supplement another heater — typically one that burns oil. But oil costs more. Propane doesn’t perform well in extreme cold. A new utility is trucking natural gas to Fairbanks and piping it to homes, but it’s not available everywhere, and residents say the cost of getting it installed is steep.

With those factors in mind, the state of Alaska has spent about $12.5 million in EPA grants to replace older wood stoves with newer ones in Fairbanks. It has about $15 million more available to spend on wood stove programs.

At the end of 2020, Congress also approved a 26% tax credit for new wood stoves that meet a certain efficiency level. Ten states provide tax incentives or rebates for the newer stoves, ranging from a 100% tax deduction in Alabama, Georgia and Idaho to a $500 tax deduction in Arizona.

In 2015, the Obama Administration wrote new rules for wood stoves. They were the first revisions since 1988. The regulation was in full effect as of May 2020. It basically requires that newly manufactured wood stoves meet stricter pollution restrictions and are certified by independent laboratories.

But the wood stove industry is suing the federal government over the rule. It also lobbied federal regulators to change testing methods while the rule was under development. The state officials behind the wood stove report argue that led to loopholes that made certification easier.

Although the EPA has approved hundreds of new wood stove models, Alaska has double-checked those certifications and allows only a few dozen to be sold or installed in the Fairbanks area, which is not meeting federal standards for particle pollution.

“Right now we’ve made compromises and have left some things on the list that we still have concerns on — because we need to have something on the list,” said Heil, the Alaska air official. “We’re hoping through time that will get better and we’ll have more and more confidence.”

The EPA is reviewing complaints about the certification program and acknowledged it could revoke approvals for stoves and test labs if appropriate.

“Having wood-burning devices that are not meeting the standards is problematic for homeowners, as well as for communities and states working to meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for (particulate matter),” the agency said.

The wood stove industry has defended its new models. John Crouch, public affairs director for the trade group Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, said he doesn’t know of any significant data missing from stove test results.

Crouch said he was not surprised a second lab can’t reproduce the same results.

“This is fire. Fire is pretty random,” he said. “And these are in the laboratory. You can imagine when you get out into the real world, it varies a lot.”

Crouch said many Fairbanks residents are still using stoves that predate the standard. Area residents have sent hundreds of older stoves to be crushed in change-out programs, but as many as 2,000 may still be in use, according to state regulators.

A company called Blaze King produces some of the most popular wood stoves in Fairbanks — black boxy things with catalytic converters.

Blaze King’s vice president, Chris Neufeld, said he had to run a regulatory obstacle course to sell stoves in the Fairbanks area. The Alaska DEC added a metric that Neufeld calls arbitrary: a particulate limit of six grams for the first hour, when stoves burn less efficiently.

“That same stove that might be burning dirtier at the first hour — in hour three, four and five, it might be immaculate,” he said. “It might be burning super-clean. But we’re not giving it any credit for that.”

Neufeld said a first-hour standard is like judging a car by how many miles per gallon it gets driving uphill. One Blaze King stove series did not make Alaska’s approved list for the Fairbanks area, even though it was certified by the EPA. Neufeld suspects a testing fluke.

“If the wood fell just the way it was intended, it probably would have been like some of the other stoves that were below one gram per hour in the first hour filter-pull. We just got a bad run,” he said.

Paul Miller, the executive director of the group of Northeast U.S. air associations, said the issue is a “backwater area for EPA.” He said the agency had not double-checked a stove certification in decades.

“It’s like having your car out there and EPA never going back to check to see if one of these millions of cars on the road actually performed as certified by the automaker.”

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Emily founded Floodlight in 2021, after more than a decade as an environment reporter in Washington, D.C. She reported for The Guardian, Politico, E&E News and CQ Roll Call.

Emily Holden/Floodlight