The days when a majority of Comox Valley residents burned wood for cooking and heating out of necessity have long gone. But the romantic notion of chopping and stacking firewood to burn in fireplaces and woodstoves over damp West Coast winters has lingered on in the Comox Valley. The Village of Cumberland even celebrates wood stove culture with an annual festival.
But what was once a means of survival is now regarded as a health hazard.
Smoke from wood stoves and fireplaces is the largest driver of the Comox Valley’s air pollution, creating winter air quality that is at times some of the worst in the province. Temperature inversions, the shape of the Comox Valley and periods of calm air in winter all contribute to the problem, according to the regional district.
And it is this resulting haze that is linked to a litany of health problems.
Ultrafine particles – called PM 2.5 – penetrate deep into lung tissue and can trigger heart attacks, strokes, worsen asthma, and diminish lung function. Long-term exposure to woodsmoke can cause emphysema, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and chronic bronchitis, and heighten the risk of dementia and cancer.
Children are particularly affected. The ultrafine particulates in wood smoke have been shown to lower birth weights, increase infant mortality and stunt lung development and function.
To cap this harmful pollution, Comox, Courtenay and Cumberland have all passed bylaws since 2018 banning wood stove installations in new homes. Courtenay and Comox also prohibit wood stoves in renovations as well.
That’s raised the hackles of the Hearth Patio & Barbeque Association of Canada (HPBAC). The Ontario-based trade group, with members in the Comox Valley, recently launched a media campaign to have Comox Valley’s wood stove bans overturned.
On a new website and in radio and print advertising, the HPBAC says the bans unfairly prohibit residents from installing new “clean burning” wood stoves certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The “Overturn the Ban” campaign website also stresses the economy of wood heat, claims local wood stove businesses will “suffer unnecessarily” under a ban, and declares that “Burning wood is a way of life.”
The HPBAC did not respond to an interview request by publication deadline.
A misleading campaign
Courtenay Mayor Bob Wells has called the wood stove industry’s campaign misleading.
“The majority of emails I’ve received from the public on this topic are from people who assume the City of Courtenay is banning all wood stoves, based on the ad campaign that’s been running in the Comox Valley,” Wells told Watershed Sentinel.
But in fact Courtenay City Council has updated its Building Bylaw to prohibit the installation of wood stoves in new construction, and requires a building permit to fix or replace an existing wood burning appliance to ensure that the new appliance meets CSA standards.
“Council will not revisit this decision,” Wells said.
There is “no confidence” that new EPA-certified stoves spew fewer particulates than the old appliances they are replacing
And he has requested the industry association to alter their campaign to remove the claim that local governments do not allow upgrades.
Cumberland Mayor Leslie Baird said the industry campaign to overturn the local bans on wood stoves in new construction “is not sending the right message to residents.”
“Each council (Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland) did their due diligence in making their decision,” she told Watershed Sentinel. “I am not reconsidering my position and I will not ask Council to reconsider our decision.”
Baird said Cumberland councillors listened to Public Health Officials about the adverse effects of woodsmoke, including the latest reports and studies on the cost to the BC healthcare system.
“How many years did it take for citizens to realize the effects of cigarettes on our health?” she said. “This is the same issue.”
Comox Mayor Russ Arnott refused to comment for this story.
Comox Valley Regional District Chair Jesse Ketler said that regional directors reviewed scientific studies and local air quality testing results before making their decision to offer rebates for replacing five-year-old or more woodstoves used for home heating with a cleaner fuel source, such as gas, pellet, propane or electric heat pump devices.
“As local government, we care about our airshed and have taken steps to reduce local air pollution. These are science-based decisions that are not likely to be reversed but could be improved with further input from our regional Airshed Roundtable,” Ketler said.
Industry claims refuted
“Newer wood stoves meet stringent EPA emission standards,” said the industry’s Overturn The Ban website, that fall “well within or below acceptable particulate emissions standards per hour.”
But that’s not so, according to a landmark report published in March by the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), a coalition of eight U.S. State air quality regulators.
After auditing the EPA’s testing and certification regime and re-testing over 250 EPA-certified stoves, the Boston-based organization found a “systemic failure of the entire certification process, including EPA’s oversight and enforcement of its requirements.”
That failure means there is “no confidence” that new EPA-certified stoves spew fewer particulates than the old appliances they are replacing, the report said.
“Once installed, these units will remain in use, emitting pollution for decades to come”
“The unavoidable conclusion of this report is that EPA’s certification program to ensure new wood heaters meet clean air requirements is dysfunctional,” the report reads. “It is easily manipulated by manufacturers and testing laboratories. EPA has done little to no oversight and enforcement.”
“It’s bigger than just paperwork issues,” said Lisa Rector, a policy and program director at NESCAUM and lead author of the report. “There were many things done during the testing to reduce emissions, some of it allowed but not as intended, and other things not allowed.”
To achieve EPA certification, wood burning appliances move through a Byzantine process involving multiple third parties and potential conflicts of interest. Since instituting emissions standards, the EPA hasn’t conducted a single audit to verify certification results, the report said, in a period of over 30 years.
Now, Rector said states under NESCAUM’s guidance have to figure out how to adapt policy to accommodate the EPA’s failings, until the EPA fixes the problem, which could take years.
The report has direct implications for the Comox Valley: “At its core, EPA’s program as currently run allows the continued sale and installation of high-emitting devices… Once installed, these units will remain in use, emitting pollution for decades to come.”
Money to burn?
Jennell Ellis, spokesperson for the non-profit advocacy group Breathe Clean Air Comox Valley, considers the NESCAUM report’s findings significant enough to refer to as “Woodstovegate,” but said other claims by the HPBAC don’t stand up to scrutiny either.
Namely, that it is unfair to restrict wood stoves because they are an inexpensive source of heat for lower income residents.
Ellis said that although wood heat is cheap for those getting free wood, in reality the heat source exacts a dear price from neighbours, communities, and society at large.
“In lower income neighbourhoods, everyone is breathing the air, while only those who get free wood benefit,” she said.
“We’re lobbying them and trying to convince them that it’s like telling people to smoke light cigarettes.”
Health Canada estimates air pollution causes 1,900 premature deaths in BC every year, while total health costs in Canada are pegged at $120 billion annually.
Education campaigns on wood seasoning and best burning practices are no panacea either, Ellis said, because some people refuse to change behaviours, and because enforcement is difficult and shouldn’t fall on municipalities anyway.
“In order to get a clean burning wood device, there’s four things you need,” said Rector. “Good technology, good fuel, good installation, good operating practices. Modify any one of those – bad fuel, poor operation, bad technology, bad installation – will turn a device into a high emitting device.”
Stove exchange programs ineffective
The NESCAUM study also adds to a body of evidence calling into question the wisdom of subsidizing the change-out of old wood stoves for new ones.
In BC, an exchange program funded by the province and municipalities, and administered by the BC Lung Association, offers rebates for households upgrading from an old wood stove to a pellet stove, natural gas, propane, or electric heat pump. In most jurisdictions the cost of new, EPA-certified wood stoves is also subsidized by $250-$500.
The Sunshine Coast Regional District and Comox Valley Regional District are the first in BC to exclude replacement wood stoves from the program.
“[The BC Lung Association] think it’s a form of harm reduction,” Ellis said. “We’re lobbying them and trying to convince them that it’s like telling people to smoke light cigarettes.”
A 2015 evaluation of BC’s Woodstove Exchange Program, covering 2008-2014 and commissioned by the Ministry of Environment, found, “there has not yet been a clear reduction in fine particulate matter pollution coming from residential wood stoves in BC.”
The evaluation speculates part of the lingering pollution could be due to a simultaneous increase in the number of households adopting wood heat, but concedes poor wood burning practices persisted despite a “significant effort” in education and outreach to teach clean burning practices.
Another case study comes from Libby, Montana. The city of nearly 2,800 had over 1,200 non-EPA-certified wood stoves changed out for new units from 2005 to 2008. This was expected to lower the particulate emissions from wood stoves in the town by over three-quarters, but studies later showed an emissions drop of less than a third.
Local governments are resolute
The Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association appears to be fighting a losing battle. Local government leaders say the industry’s Overturn the Ban campaign hasn’t changed their minds.
Cumberland Mayor Baird said she has “no idea why they have chosen the Comox Valley to launch their campaign. We joined with the Comox Valley Regional District as did Courtenay and Comox to improve the air quality in our areas.”
“We are not going backwards,” she said.
CVRD Chair Ketler and Courtenay Mayor Wells both think the industry has targeted the Comox Valley because all three municipalities have created new bylaws that limit the use of wood stoves in new construction and they fear the precedent this sets for other BC municipalities.
Update April 1, 2021:
In a written response to the Watershed Sentinel’s questions, received after publication, HPBAC president Laura Litchfield said Comox Valley municipalities did not adequately consult the public or local industry members before making decisions regarding wood stoves, and maintained that EPA-certified wood stoves meet high emissions standards. The group also said they encourage responsible burning and wood seasoning, and argued that wood stoves are an important back up heating system.
This article was a journalistic collaboration between the Watershed Sentinel and Decafnation
This article appears in our April | May 2021 issue.