The Tacoma area is expected to comply with a mandate from the federal government to improve air quality by 2015. Most of Tacoma and a good portion of Pierce County were designated as a non-attainment zone several years ago.
The problem is worse during the months of December, January and February. Wood smoke is by far the biggest culprit, accounting for 53 percent of the fine particulate matter that's in the air. Gasoline powered vehicles are a distant second at 20 percent, with various industries third at 10 percent.
Kathy Strange from Puget Sound Clean Air Agency gave an update to Tacoma City Council during its Jan. 17 study session.
A task force was convened to examine the issue. It held a series of meetings last year from May through December. Strange said it included several residents who heat their homes with wood stoves, as well as merchants who sell hearths. The task force came up with three tactics to address the problem.
"They burn wood or whatever it is they are burning because it is all they have." Jake Fey, Tacoma City Council
The first is to implement strategies to reduce pollution from all sources. Strange said this takes into account future regulations on ship and vehicle emissions.
The second is to enhance enforcement of winter burn bans. This includes public education efforts. Strange said many residents are unaware of burn bans. This could include classes on how to burn wood in a cleaner manner. "There is education on the front end and the back end," Strange remarked.
There has been discussion of having more enforcement staff. Strange said the agency may be able to leverage other resources to pay for temporary workers during the winter.
The third is to ramp up efforts to remove uncertified wood stoves from houses. Strange said most stoves manufactured prior to 1990 fall into this category. So far 1,200 have been replaced. It is estimated another 24,000 need to be replaced within the non-attainment zone.
Councilmember Jake Fey said some low-income residents burn wet wood and miscellaneous scraps in their stoves, which he said could cause bad air quality inside their homes. "This is a social justice problem," he said. "They burn wood or whatever it is they are burning because it is all they have."
Open houses were held in September and October. Strange said about 200 people attended each. Many filled out surveys. Common responses were on the impact on public health from wood smoke and the burden on the poor to switch to new stoves or to electric or natural gas to heat their homes. Strange said some respondents felt such efforts were government intrusiveness, while others disputed that wood smoke contributes to the air quality problem.
Strange said the work needed to bring our area's air quality up to federal standards would cost tens of millions of dollars, a real challenge in a time of budget cuts at the state and federal levels. She said non-profit agencies or private foundations may need to be enlisted in the effort. "We will need to find other funding sources to make this work."
Strange briefly discussed legislation on this topic introduced by two Tacoma Democrats – Senator Debbie Regala and Representative Laurie Jinkins.
The board of Puget Sound Clean Air Agency will hold its next meeting at Bates Technical College at 9:15 a.m. on Jan. 26. It is open to the public.