Sarah Cosgrove works at ground zero for Vermont asthmatics. The 35-year-old respiratory therapist serves as an asthma educator and tobacco-cessation specialist for Rutland Regional Medical Center. In 2010, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified Vermont as having the highest rate of adult asthma in the country — 11.1 percent of the population suffers from it — Rutland had Vermont’s highest incidence of the chronic respiratory disease. So when Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources issues an air-quality alert for Rutland, as it did on January 9 due to high wood-smoke levels forecast for the following day, Cosgrove and her clients take heed.
“On those cold, cold days, I often hear people complain, ‘I take that first breath and my lungs tighten up all day long,’” Cosgrove said.
Each day, she visits the homes of Rutland-area asthmatics and sufferers of COPD, a degenerative pulmonary disease associated with cigarette use. Her job is to recommend ways for her clients to breathe easier, such as cleaning up dust, mold and rodent droppings, using inhalers properly and quitting smoking.
Because Rutland also has some of the state’s oldest housing stock, Cosgrove sees a lot of outdated and inefficient woodstoves, the smoke and soot of which can trigger asthma attacks and other acute respiratory problems. She often warns clients, “If you can smell the smoke in your home, it’s not functioning properly.”
Like many Vermont public health experts, Cosgrove was glad to see the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency propose stricter emissions standards on all new woodstoves, pellet stoves and other residential wood heaters. The EPA predicts that the new rules, due to be finalized in 2015 and phased in over five years, would make residential wood-fired heaters burn as much as 80 percent cleaner than those made today.
But will the new rules actually make Vermont’s air significantly cleaner? Two local woodstove manufacturers — Vermont Castings, in Randolph, and Hearthstone Stoves of Morrisville — say not. They contend that the real threats to Vermont’s air aren’t new woodstoves and pellet stoves but the thousands of older models that would not be affected by the new guidelines.
Those naysayers also contend that the cost of compliance could drive the price of new stoves out of reach for most consumers, while ignoring a greater threat to Vermont’s air quality: coal-fired generating plants in the Midwest.
According to U.S. census figures, Vermont ranks first in the nation for its per-capita use of wood for heat, with at least one in six Vermont households now using wood products as their primary heating source. ANR estimates that the number is even higher, saying between one-third and one-half of all Vermont homes use wood as a heat source.
Homeowners are not the only ones heating with wood. Nearly one-third of all Vermont schoolchildren attend a school heated by wood or biomass. Burlington Electric’s 50-megawatt McNeil Generating Station burns about 76 tons of locally harvested wood per hour to feed electricity to the grid.
But all that combustion comes at a price. Each year, the Vermont ANR issues an average of three to five air-quality alerts; in 2014, there have already been two. Rich Poirot, ANR’s air quality planning chief, says that most of those alerts occur in winter when the forecast is for clear, cold and calm days in mountain-valley regions, such as Rutland, where temperature inversions trap pollutants.
Since 2009, Rutland has experienced 20 “health advisory days” for sensitive populations. Over that same period, Burlington experienced just three, and Bennington none. The main culprit, Poirot says, is residential wood smoke. Unlike automobiles and oil furnaces, which face strict emissions standards, many sources of wood smoke, such as outdoor wood boilers, have not been regulated.
Of major concern to environmental health experts are the fine particulates, or PM 2.5, which are tiny particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter. (For comparison, a human hair is about 70 microns across.) These particles can get trapped deep inside the chest, damaging lungs, blood vessels and the heart. They can also be deadly, triggering heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks.
Jane Wolforth, asthma program manager at the Vermont Department of Health, says the new EPA rules will make a difference in cleaning the air. But change will take time, she cautions, in part because woodstoves don’t get replaced very often, and burning habits are ingrained.
“We do struggle with these cultural, Vermont-specific myths that wood is a ‘green’ source of energy,” she says.
Indeed, despite obvious air-quality concerns, ANR doesn’t try to get people to burn less wood, just to burn smarter.
“The agency actually supports burning wood for heat,” notes Elaine O’Grady, director of the air quality and climate division. “There’s no expectation on our part that wood burning will go away, but we do support proposals to make wood burning cleaner and more efficient.”
But will the pellet and woodstove industry be able to comply? Dave Kuhfahl is president of Hearthstone Stoves, which employs 50 to 60 people, depending upon the season, at its Morrisville facility. According to Kuhfahl, Hearthstone currently manufactures 16 EPA-certified wood and pellet stoves. He contends that if the EPA’s “draconian” regulations take effect as written, every one those products would be obsolete within five years.
Kuhfahl contends that the cost of reengineering and recertifying all 16 stoves to the new guidelines, using a new testing procedure, would cost his company about $350,000 to $500,000 per model. That expense would have to be passed on to consumers, he notes, adding another $1,000 to $1,500 to the stove’s price tag.
“At this point, we cannot lie down and accept this fate,” Kuhfahl adds. “We are not a rich smokestack company that ignores the safety of our fellow Vermonters. Heating with wood is a very viable opportunity to use the most basic renewable energy we have here. When you cut your wood and heat with it, no one gets rich.”
Hearthstone’s local competitor, Vermont Castings, voices similar concerns. Jess Baldwin, VC’s senior vice president for sales and customer service joined Kuhfahl in proposing another solution: Get rid of the estimated 6 million old stoves built before the EPA standards were set. Since 2008, Vermont has run a program that provided the public with financial incentives to swap out old and polluting outdoor wood boilers for newer, more efficient ones. In all, 65 units were replaced, at a cost of about $380,000 to the state.
Baldwin and others suggest that Vermont or the EPA could adopt a similar program for pellet and indoor woodstoves, as was done in Libby, Montana. Ten years ago, the small mining town near the Canadian border had terrible air pollution caused primarily by old and inefficient woodstoves. This was a serious health concern, as hundreds of Libby residents suffer from asbestosis, mesothelioma and other lung abnormalities due to decades of vermiculite mining.
Between 2005 and 2008 the EPA, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, and the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association implemented a woodstove change-out program for Libby. According to a University of Montana report, they swapped out or rebuilt nearly 1,200 stoves and by 2010 had reduced outdoor fine particle levels by nearly one-third, and indoor levels by 72 percent. Vermont’s stove makers say a similar program in Vermont could be just as effective. Currently, however, state officials say they have no plans, nor funding, to implement one.