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Wood smoke crackdown punted to cities

Metro backs away from imposing regional controls
The crackle of a roaring fire also means smoke up the chimney and a long-running debate on whether tighter pollution regulations are needed.

Burn baby, burn – that's how it stands for owners of fireplaces and wood stoves that Metro Vancouver had been threatening to regulate.

Metro politicians on Tuesday put the brakes on a plan to impose region-wide restrictions on residential wood burners, saying they see little justification for the regional district to get involved.

Instead, Metro will work with any individual cities that want tougher anti-wood smoke regulations within their own city limits.

"Why have a cookie-cutter approach to impose regulations where they may not be needed?" asked Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini, who chairs the Metro environment and energy committee that debated the issue.

"In areas with high density, the issue is more acute," he said. "In areas where there's more sparse density, it's a little bit of a different issue."

It's a contentious debate that pits wood burning fans' right to burn against neighbours' right to breathe.

Metro staff have fielded repeated complaints about smoke from household wood burning, particularly in West Vancouver, Vancouver and Burnaby.

But Trasolini said it seems much less a problem in other areas, such as the Fraser Valley and parts of the northeast sector.

"Why not give the flexibility to municipalities to have more of a hands-on approach in their own areas?"

Metro's board agreed in principle two years ago to move to regulate wood burning

and regional air quality officials were poised to begin public consultations leading up to the introduction of new regulations.

The case for tighter rules centres on the particulate emitted by wood smoke chimneys, blamed for a raft of respiratory and other health disorders.

Metro officials now believe residential wood smoke accounts for up to 20 per cent of all fine particulate in the region's air – twice as much as previously thought.

Roughly one third of Metro Vancouver households have a wood-burning fireplace or stove, according to a 2010 survey commissioned by the region, but only two-thirds of them are in regular use.

Half of users admit they mainly burn wood not for heat but for ambiance, entertainment or convenience, to get rid of flammable garbage.

"Most surprisingly, 16 per cent of respondents burn during the spring and summer season," a staff report said.

The same survey found a majority of residents support some residential wood burning restrictions but less than a third back a full ban.

A Metro bylaw would not have the power to ban household burning but it likely could have limited how often and at what times it can be done, with temporary bans possible at times of periods of reduced air quality.

Cities, on the other hand, could pass bylaws to ban new wood-burning units and even require the removal of existing ones on grounds of nuisance, environmental protection and public health, according to Metro officials, who had recommended both avenues be pursued.

The committee decision to abandon a new Metro bylaw, which must still be ratified by the full board, dismays air pollution activists.

"If Vancouver is going to be the greenest city in the world, there's no way you can have wood smoke-burning appliances," said Vancouver anti-smoke campaigner Vicki Morrell.

She's heard from families smoked out by chimney-belching neighbours all over the region – many in very rural areas – some of whom have sold their homes at a loss.

"Some people are living in conditions that you would only find in Third World countries," Morrell said, adding there's not enough awareness of the health risks.

"You can get cancer. You can get lung disease. You can have a heart attack. You can have a stroke. Your sinus problems may be caused because of wood smoke in your area."

Metro has also listed household wood burning as a likely contributing factor behind some past incidents when particulate readings temporarily spiked to high levels.

Metro already has an air quality bylaw that requires wood stove and fireplace users to minimize emissions and burn only wood, paper or natural gas.

But the region has found those rules almost impossible to enforce.

"Inspection of a private residence can only occur with a search warrant or the resident's permission," the staff report says. "Proving that a single fireplace or stove is causing pollution as defined in law is difficult."

The province also requires new wood stoves be certified to meet tougher emission standards, which helps with newer units but does nothing to address the problem of old stoves and fireplaces.