Neigbours boiling over boilers

Paul M. Leclerc was dropping his daughter off at a friend’s house in North Smithfield last winter when he came across an unforgettable scene. Smoke from a neighbor’s outdoor wood-fired boiler clung to the ground, totally enveloping the friend’s house.->

“The people were trying to figure out how they could live like that — it was so smoky that details of the house were unclear and the smoke detectors were going off. They asked me to do something.”

In nearby Foster, Steve Charette’s neighbor fired up an outdoor boiler two months ago and drove Charette and his family out of their house.
“Our twin 2-year-olds were miserable. My wife was miserable. We were all coughing,” Charette said. “The smoke was unbearable.”
Leclerc, a member of the North Smithfield Town Council, proposed an ordinance to keep the smoky furnaces out of his town’s compact villages. After a year of hearings and studies, the ordinance was passed last month and North Smithfield became the first Rhode Island community to regulate the increasingly popular heating units.
Charette sought help from every municipal and state official he could think of, with no success. He has finally found a lawyer.
More and more people are buying outdoor wood-fueled boilers here and throughout the Northeast in response to rising energy costs. Most are simply trying to save money. But some are prompting unpleasant surprises for their neighbors.
The systems look very similar to portable toilets, though they are larger and topped with a smokestack.
The heart of a typical system is a large boiler that heats hot water that is pumped underground and into houses. Many people use the systems for heat in the winter, but some use them to heat their hot water year round.
The best systems, using seasoned wood and modern clean-air technology, can burn efficiently and meet guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But most systems don’t meet those standards, and some homeowners have created additional problems by burning trash or green wood.
A recent report for a nonprofit collaborative of air-quality officials in eight Northeastern states (Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management) found a number of problems with the boilers. One study it cited found a typical boiler produced as many emissions as 22 EPA-certified wood stoves, 205 oil furnaces and as many as 8,000 natural gas furnaces.
The report said the particle emissions from the boilers raise public health concerns over a “suite of respiratory and cardiac morbidity outcomes as well as premature mortality.”
The elderly, children and people with cardiopulmonary disease may be at a higher health risk, it concluded. The report also found the boilers:
• Generally don’t use emission control devices that are commonly used on wood stoves.
• Emit significantly more particulate matter than other residential wood-burning devices.
• Have large fire boxes that allow people to burn a variety of inappropriate materials. Enforcement agencies have found outdoor boilers burning “tires, large bags of refuse and railroad ties.”
• Often don’t burn completely and usually have short smokestacks, so they create a lot of pollution that remains concentrated nearby.
Based on sales trends, the collaborative estimated there could be 500,000 outdoor boilers in use by 2010. It found it typically costs $8,000 to $10,000 to buy and install the boilers.
Historically, the group said, boilers generally went on the market in the 1980s, but sales didn’t spike until after 1999. Some 95 percent of the 155,000 boilers sold went to 19 states in the Northeast and Midwest. It estimated 206 units were sold in Rhode Island.
The report recommended that states adopt regulations to set emission limits because it said the EPA was failing to set national standards.
The report prompted one manufacturer to threaten a lawsuit, but the agency stood by the report.
“The tragedy of their response was they were missing the point,” says Paul Miller, NESCAUM’s deputy director. “What’s driving this isn’t regulators looking for work, it’s the neighbors. Whether we disappear won’t make the problem disappear. The companies could make these things pollute less.
“These don’t belong in densely populated areas. They were developed by farmers who had plenty of land,” said Miller. “But once someone spends $5,000 or ”?more for one of these, it’s hard to say, ‘Oops.’
Last year the EPA came out with voluntary guidelines that set stricter pollution standards for the boilers, requiring them to burn 70 percent cleaner. Seven manufacturers pledged to make at least one unit each complying with the strict standards, the EPA said.
One company, Greenwood Technologies, promotes its new clean burning stove that uses superheated air and consumes less than half the wood. But Greenwood points out many companies continue to produce traditional stoves producing lots of smoke.
In the meantime, so many variables in the quality of wood burned, the location of chimneys, and the weather can cause problems for neighbors. Boilermakers like to compare their products to wood stoves, Miller said. But that misses the point. A typical wood stove is designed to heat one or two rooms, while outdoor boilers are sized to heat a house, its hot water, even a Jacuzzi — they burn much more wood and create more pollution.
The sudden influx of such systems is catching state and local governments unprepared
“It’s a relatively new phenomenon,” says Barbara Morin, of the state Department of Environmental Management’s Office of Air Resources. “We didn’t have more than one or two of these until three years ago. Now, they’re starting to get more popular. And it’s a big issue because they can produce massive amounts of particulates.
“We get our fair share of complaints about wood stoves, but this is worse,” Morin said.
She said the DEM doesn’t feel it has authority over residential air emission problems. Even if it did, it doesn’t have the staff to respond to individual complaints.
“Some situations pull at your heart,” she added. “People in their own homes who can’t breathe.”
“The problem is a real problem, but from a legal perspective, it requires a private course of action,” says Tricia Jedele, environmental advocate for Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch. So far she has heard only one complaint, but she says it raises interesting public policy concerns.
As energy prices continue to climb, she says, the state would be wise to help people heat their homes in ways that are cleaner.
“If more and more people become impacted, or are robbed by products not working effectively, I don’t think our office would mind looking into this more. But for now, this is something that can be regulated at the municipal level.”
Towns can mandate site setbacks and the use of seasoned wood, she said.
North Smithfield did more. While 19 units are grandfathered in town, any new units must meet the EPA standards. They must burn only clean wood. And they may only be used on lots of 2¾ acres or larger.
Leclerc says he’s proud of what the town did. And he’s sure it won’t be the last town to pass its own ordinance.
In Foster, Town Council President Colette Matarese says the smell of wood smoke is a part of rural life.
She said she’d like to help out Charette, but his problem is more of a civil issue between him and his neighbor. She’d prefer to see them talk out their differences.
Charette says he is considering going to court.
“These wood boilers are the most brainless contraption ever created,” he said. “The EPA made laws for indoor wood stoves that burn extremely hot to allow for complete combustion. These boiler companies do the exact opposite. They build a device 10 times the size of an EPA-certified wood stove, smolder the wood and create a steady stream of toxic smoke, put a short stack on it and stick it in a residential community. What were they thinking?”

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