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New state regs for outdoor wood boilers spark debate

ALBANY– New state regulations for outdoor wood boilers have brought cheers from some, while leaving others hot under the collar.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has approved regulations dealing with performance and installation standards for new outdoor wood boilers (OWBs) across the state. These are wood-burning furnaces installed in small structures apart from a home. They heat water that is then used to heat the home. Advocates in rural communities like the ready availability of a fuel supply so close that some people cut the wood for themselves. But the units increase air pollution at ground level because the chimneys typically are short. That’s why the DEC has stepped in with new rules.

Prior provisions to phase out the use of older OWBs and restrict their use in the interim were removed in the latest version of the rules, which will take effect at the end of this month. But those restrictions will be revisited through a new public stakeholder process, and revised regulations are intended to address the concerns of residents impacted by the operation of the devices, according to DEC spokesperson Lori Severino.

The new regulations were approved at a December 22 meeting of the DEC’s Environmental Review Board and were filed with the Secretary of State at the end of December, making them effective in 30 days — the end of January, Ms. Severino said.

The stricter guidelines will ensure that new OWBs burn at least 90% cleaner than older models.

The regulation includes stack height requirements for new OWBs that will reduce the impact of emission plumes on neighboring property owners. In addition, new OWBs will be required to be set back a minimum of 100 feet from neighboring properties — except for OWBs used in agricultural operations, which must be at least 100 feet from neighboring homes. Both new and existing OWBs will be subject to fuel restrictions that ensure that only appropriate fuels are used.

In municipalities where OWB regulations are on the books, the stricter of the two laws will prevail. At this time, the state regulations only pertain to new OWBs, noted Ms. Severino.

In the Village of Kinderhook, which arguably has the most restrictive OWB law in the county, Mayor Carol Weaver said new OWB installations in the village of 1,300 people are prohibited all together.

Two OWBs exist within village limits and complaints by residents about air quality because of the devices, led village officials to enact the law in December 2009 after discussions during many meetings, said Mayor Weaver.

The village law calls for a chimney height of 30 feet above the ground as compared to the state law, which only requires 18 feet. The village building inspector examines the two existing OWBs annually, not only to make sure the devices are up to snuff, but also to check that what is being burned in them is permissible, she said.

The law will only allow the two OWBs to operate for 10 years from the time the law was enacted; after that they must be removed. If an owner discontinues use of an OWB, abandons it or moves away, the device will no longer be permitted, said Ms. Weaver.

In Livingston, town officials followed the history of OWB regulation around the county and because they thought state regulations were pending, they held off enacting a local law on the devices until November 2010, said Supervisor Kevin McDonald.

When the state law seemed to have stalled, Livingston officials decided to go ahead with their own, said the supervisor, who noted the local law, which falls into the category of planning/zoning regulation, will now have to be re-examined. The Livingston law, which allows an OWB to be placed 175 from a neighboring property line and calls for a stack height of 18 feet, appears to be less restrictive than the new state law.

Acknowledging that OWB regulation has been a topic of discussion for over a year in his municipality, Town of Kinderhook Supervisor Pat Grattan said town officials decided to wait to see what the DEC would come up with.

“The town can’t do anything that is less restrictive than the state,” said Mr. Grattan.

While the town had a moratorium on the installation of OWBs for several months, Mr. Grattan said he believes that has now expired, and it will be up to the town’s Codes Committee to evaluate the new state regulations and decide what to do. Right now, “everything is subject to the new state regs,” he said.

Asked for his comment on the DEC regulations, the supervisor said, “I hate to see people who are on fixed incomes or who have low incomes and heat with wood — have that ability curtailed. Oil is $3.25 per gallon, very expensive.”  Mr. Grattan said the new law is unduly regulating “what upstate New York is all about.”

“This is about ensuring that new outdoor wood boilers burn cleaner — not only for people who buy OWBs and their families, but also for their neighbors. It’s not unlike the switch to cleaner cars. It’s also to ensure that OWB stacks are high enough to disperse emissions rather than having them blow directly into houses and other dwellings. That’s important for public health. Also, we have listened to the agricultural community and made appropriate exceptions for farming operations,” Acting DEC Commissioner Peter Iwanowicz said in a press release.

But the state Farm Bureau doesn’t see it that way, calling the DEC’s “rush” to enact new OWB regulations a “last minute regulatory ploy” following a pledge by DEC officials to conduct additional public hearings on the measure as prescribed by law.

“We were told by DEC officials in October that there would be a new round of public comment before enacting a set of revised wood boiler regulations. We took them at their word, which apparently was a mistake…. Meanwhile, fuel oil prices are soaring and a cold winter lies ahead,” state Farm Bureau President Dean Norton said in a press release. In the same release the organization promised that it “will be exploring possible legal remedies to the situation.”

Among the farm bureau’s objections are the DEC’s call for a chimney stack height of 18 feet to be mandatory on all boilers by October 1, 2011. Stacks of that height would be costly to install and dangerous in some areas of New York, where high winds are common, the release said.

The DEC proposal to prohibit the use of boilers in the northern part of the state between June 1 and August 31, will mean that OWB owners will be forced to use conventional, non-renewable fuel-burning equipment during those months.

The regulations will have significant financial implications for farm and rural homeowners that use OWBs to heat their houses, barns and greenhouses, say opponents of the regulations.

Looking at the issue from a health standpoint, the president and CEO of the American Lung Association in New York, Scott T. Santarella, said the DEC regulations take a step “toward improving New Yorkers’ air quality and lung health.” And his organization is pressing for regulations that limit pollution from boilers now in use.

The smoke from outdoor wood boilers contain unhealthy amounts of particulate matter and components such as carbon monoxide, various irritant gases, and chemicals known or suspected to be carcinogens, such as dioxin, according to the Lung Association press release. The Lung Association says that many New Yorkers continue to be exposed to smoke from the devices, with more New Yorkers having contacted the association about breathing problems they attribute to living near these devices than any other air quality issue.

Newly sworn-in Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin (R-108th) weighed in on the issue recently, saying he is pleased that the DEC backed off on its original proposal to ban current styles of outdoor wood burning boilers. “This is a partial victory for upstate farmers and families, but more work needs to be done. The business of state government and its agencies should be to make more effective, common-sense solutions to benefit the people of this state. I find it troubling that an agency, during these challenging economic times, is willing to interject bad policy and harmful regulations that would have a negative impact on upstate families.”

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@columbiapaper.com.

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