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Study: Wood-burning Is Significant In Winter Smog

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HB 65 bars state regulators from putting limits on burning wood for food, even when pollution levels are high.

A new state law allows cooking with wood, even when winter smog makes northern Utah’s air unhealthy. Now new scientific data shows that wood-burning turns out to be a bigger part of the problem than anyone realized.

The state’s Air Quality Board hadn’t asked a governor to veto a bill in a decade until HB65. Lawmakers had passed it to block state regulators from restricting barbecuing, smoking and other cooking with wood. 

“Air quality, the environment is a big deal for me,” said Gov. Gary Herbert during a recent KUED-Channel 7 news conference. He was sympathizing with the Air Quality Board but also defending what he called positive steps made on air quality in this year’s legislative session. 

“I would want to remind everybody that the Legislature controls the laws,” he said. “It’s not rules and regulations. It’s the Legislature.”

Herbert avoided a legislative override vote by signing the bill last week.

Then new research this week showed that wood smoke pollution is a big part of winter smog problem -- often bigger than industrial sources like the refineries straddling the Salt Lake County line.

Researchers found wood-burning made up an average of 16 percent of the particulate pollution in the Salt Lake Valley and almost 24 percent on voluntary no-burning days. In Utah County, it was 21 percent on average – seven times as much as all of that county’s industrial sources. 

“It turns out that adds up to a bunch of pollution,” said Matt Pacenza. He’s leader of the environmental group, HEAL Utah, which also pressed the governor to stop HB65. “So, now the hard question is: How do you limit that?”

It’s an important question, too. That’s because Utah faces a federal deadline to cut pollution within two years, and wood-burning limits have proven effective in other cities with winter smog, like Fairbanks, Alaska.

Researchers in Utah’s Division of Air Quality did the study with money lawmakers provided two years ago, just after Herbert scrapped plans for a winter-long ban on all wood-burning in high-pollution counties.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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