Summer isn’t the only time to worry about woodsmoke

As we roll into fall, many people start cleaning out their wood-burning stoves and fireplaces to start heating their homes, or just to get that cozy ambiance. What many people don’t realize is that, when a lot of people are burning wood in their homes, the cumulative effect on air quality can be similar to a wildfire. OEC has been advocating to reduce harmful air pollution from urban wood fires and to provide healthier options for those that rely on woodburning as a primary heat source.  

Specifically, OEC has been working closely with Woodsmoke Free Portland and the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners over the past six months on the Multnomah County Woodsmoke Curtailment Program. The program aims to: 1) increase funding in their bi-annual budget to specifically fund a staffing position dedicated to the woodsmoke curtailment program, and 2) form a woodsmoke working group to recommend policies that will reduce the amount of wood smoke pollution in the County.

Spearheaded by Commissioners Susheela Jayapal and Jessica Vega Pederson, the Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the budget increase to hire a new air quality specialist within the Health Department. The woodsmoke working group which just had its last meeting, did not disappoint. It pulled together a list of County representatives, energy companies like PGE, stakeholders, energy experts like the Portland Clean Energy Fund, and other experts from rural counties to discuss policy that could be carried out by the new air quality specialist.

This is important because biomass and woodburning is toxic for the environment and our health.

Woodburning has long enjoyed a reputation as a clean, green, and renewable alternative to fossil fuels. We recently learned that Oregon emits 12.8million tons of particulate matter a year- similar to a small wildfire. Inhalation of woodsmoke can cause asthma and other respiratory illnesses. And a Stanford study concluded that the impacts of biomass (wood and similar products) burning are much greater than previously thought on our climate and responsible for 5-10 percent of worldwide mortalities 

Multnomah County is different
Unlike other, more rural, counties in our state, only 5% of the woodburning occurring within Multnomah County is for a primary source of heat. This means the majority of woodburning happening is for ambiance and recreation. And 55 percent of the wood burned within Portland is burned in inefficient and higher polluting fireplaces and outdoor fire pits. 

Moving Toward Equitable Policy
The policies recommended in the woodsmoke working group are therefore tailored towards Multnomah County. For example, OEC and our partners Woodsmoke Free Portland advocated for a grant program to fund wood-stove changeouts to heat pumps, and prioritizing low-income families and those burning primarily for heat and subsidies to help those families keep their energy bills lower. This is because rebates require low and middle-income families to front the costs of pricey upgrades. We also advocated for the wood burn ordinance to apply year-round. A lot has changed in our climate over the past few years. Currently, our woodsmoke ordinance applies from October 1 to March 1. It does not currently account for the now ever-intense wildfire seasons and poor air quality days that permeate Summer, nor the dry, fire-prone conditions in those months. We have also pushed the County to ensure that no one has to burn biomass for heat by the year 2025, to help us meet our 2030 Climate goals. 

Everyone deserves the right to healthy air that does not make them sick. And given the threat of COVID to lungs, the scope and urgency of the County’s woodsmoke abatement efforts must reflect this larger context.

Take our Woodsmoke pledge here.

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