Oregon, nine states sue EPA over wood stove pollution that threatens tens of thousands in the state

They want the agency to update its emission standards and tighten its oversight

By: - October 3, 2023 4:09 pm
About 5% of Oregon households use wood stoves, and 15% in rural areas do.

About 5% of Oregon households use wood stoves, and 15% in rural areas do. (Getty Images)

Tens of thousands of Oregonians who rely on wood stoves could be at risk for breathing higher levels of harmful emissions than allowed by federal standards – even if they’ve swapped out an old heater for a new one that meets federal standards.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for setting emission limits for wood stoves, has not effectively tested new stoves to ensure they meet the latest standards, according to Oregon environmental and judicial officials.

Concerns about wood stove pollution prompted Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to join nine other states in a lawsuit against the EPA, calling on the agency to update its standards and tighten regulations.

The suit, filed in September in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., notes that wood stoves are a key source of pollution.

Wood smoke contains fine particles and pollutants such as benzene and formaldehyde that can cause burning eyes, runny nose and bronchitis, according to an EPA report published in 2015. Exposure to the smoke can also cause heart and lung problems and can even be deadly. 

Every year wood heater smoke “contributes hundreds of thousands of tons of fine particles throughout the country – mostly during the winter months,” it said. Those emissions, according to a 2020 report, amount to 8% of total particulate emissions in the U.S.

Rural Oregonians are especially at risk.

The state Department of Environmental Quality estimates that 5% of Oregon households – nearly 83,000 based on 2022 Census estimates – use wood stoves for heat and that 15% of rural homes are heated with them.

“This is a serious public health, environmental and consumer protection issue all wrapped into one!” Rosenblum said. “The science is clear: Wood heaters in Oregon are a major source of particulate-matter pollution, which is harmful to our health. The EPA needs to do what they said they would eight years ago: review and, if need be, revise their standards.”

Alaska, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Washington and Puget Sound Clean Air Agency joined the suit. It asks the court to find the agency in violation of the Clean Air Act and to order a review of the wood heater standards. 

Federal requirements

The EPA is responsible for setting emission limits for wood stoves and reviewing and updating them as necessary every eight years under the Clean Air Act. The last time the agency set new standards was in March 2015, following a similar suit by Oregon, New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. The suit says the agency is overdue to revise the standards and has no plans to revisit them until November 2027.

It also says the agency has failed to ensure that new residential wood stoves actually meet those standards.

To check for wood stove certification, look for a certification label. For more information about emission test results go to the EPA-certified woodstove database. The EPA provides these wood-burning resources for consumers.
In February, the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency released a scathing report about the agency’s oversight of its wood stove program. It said the agency’s 2015 standards are flawed and that the agency does not ensure that wood heaters are properly tested and certified before reaching consumers.

“Certification tests may not be accurate, do not reflect real-world conditions and may result in some wood heaters being certified for sale that emit too much particulate-matter pollution,” the report said. 

People’s health is at stake, the report said.

“The EPA’s ineffective residential wood heater program puts human health and the environment at risk for exposure to dangerous fine-particulate-matter pollution by allowing sales of wood heaters that may not meet emission standards,” the report said.

DEQ enters the fray

A month following the report, officials at Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Health Authority wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency, calling on it to lower its emission standards for particulate matter, which is spewed not only by wood stoves but also by wildfires. The letter noted that many people in communities that are vulnerable to wildfire smoke in the summer also use wood stoves in winter, when weather systems can trap pollution near the ground.

“Oregon is home to unique geographic features that contribute to the beauty and splendor of our natural spaces and also contribute to routine atmospheric inversions that contribute to increased ambient air pollution concentrations,” the letter said. “These inversions occur during winter months when wood stove use is high, especially in the more rural and economically disadvantaged areas of Oregon.”

It said that Oregonians – and others – should not “carry the burden of EPA’s failed wood stove certification program, especially when state and local governments have invested so heavily in changing-out these stoves over the years with an expectation that they would result in improved air quality.”

Although Oregon Department of Environmental Quality officials have known about the EPA’s faulty program, they’ve not taken action to protect Oregonians, including testing new stoves.

“The Clean Air Act established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the authority for setting emission standards for manufactured products, such as wood stoves. So, DEQ has relied upon EPA’s program to ensure that they meet standards,” an agency spokesperson, Dylan Darling, said in a statement.

He advised Oregonians concerned about wood stove pollution to use seasoned, dry wood and to ensure that the moisture content is 20% or less according to a moisture meter. Homeowners should never burn garbage in a wood stove and should ensure it has the correct amount of draft and that the door is not open during burning.

Darling said homeowners concerned about wood stove pollution could switch to a pellet-burning device or a heat pump, which also cools. Oregon also offers incentives to help residents and landlords switch to clean heat pumps, thanks to a $25 million allocation by the Legislature last year. 

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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry, who has more than 30 years of journalism experience, is Oregon Capital Chronicle's editor-in-chief. She previously was editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site; reported on health in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio.

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