February 8, 2022
Commissioners will consider policy changes this month to reduce wood smoke, a major contributor to Multnomah County air pollution that disproportionately harms black and low-income communities.
The Office of Sustainability, in conjunction with Commissioners Susheela Jayapal and Jessica Vega Pederson, presented a selection of policy options at a February 8 board meeting. The proposals come after a series of meetings and months of work by a working group made up of public sector, non-profit and corporate sectors.
The working group recommended major changes to the county’s seasonal wood smoke reduction program, bans on new wood stoves, and grants to help low-income households transition to cleaner heat sources.
“I’m pleased to be here today as Multnomah County considers policies that could set a statewide gold standard,” said Alicia Cohen, member of Wood Smoke Free PDX, who was also a member of the working group. “It was gratifying to be part of a process that brought together so many stakeholders. The recommendations are spot on.”
Commissioner Vega Pederson said that every year new studies provide further evidence of the health risks – particularly for children – posed by the fine particles in wood smoke. the Particles smaller than 2.5 Microns in diameter can be inhaled deep into the lungs and pose the greatest health risk.
People can be more exposed to air pollution depending on where they live. Air quality is worse along major roads and near industry, areas with more multi-family or affordable housing, and with a higher proportion of black people. The Multnomah County Office of Sustainability estimates that burning wood alone pumped about 7.3 million metric tons of CO2 into the county’s air in 2018.
“That means we can significantly reduce emissions by just looking at burning wood,” Vega Pederson said.
Nadège Dubuisson, Environmental Toxic Program Specialist, leads the county’s wood smoke reduction program.
Exposure to wood smoke worsens existing health conditions, and people with lung diseases, older adults, children, and those in poorer socioeconomic backgrounds are at higher risk.
Dubuisson points to research showing that 64% of people living below the federal poverty line in Multnomah County report at least one air pollution-related illness, such as arthritis, diabetes, asthma, heart disease, lung disease or cancer. This contrasts with almost 50% of people above the poverty line.
She said when the Department of Health looks at the top causes of death in Multnomah County, air pollution contributes to large racial disparities in health, including higher death rates from diabetes, cancer and stroke. Many of these health effects are due to particulate matter and other harmful carcinogens in air pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that wood smoke accounts for about 11% of this in Multnomah County Cancer risk from air pollutionby secondary sources and transport.
“As we enter the third year of the pandemic, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the relationship between air pollution and COVID-19,” Dubuisson said.
The virus that has nearly 1,000 people killed in Multnomah County, is now the fourth leading cause of death. Chronic exposure to particulate matter has increased the severity and risk of death from the virus.
The working group
Last year Commissioners Jayapal and Vega Pederson set up a wood smoking working group Development of a long-term vision and policy proposals to further reduce wood smoke pollution.
“We’re fortunate to have a strong community of advocates pushing us to do better,” said Angela Donley, Commissioner Jayapal’s policy director.
The working group formed last summer included the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Washington County, City of Portland, utilities like PGE, Pacific Power and Northwest Natural, and nonprofit organizations like Neighbors for Clean Air, the Energy Trust of Oregon and the Oregon Environmental Council.
The working group met three times to discuss strategies, agree on priorities and set a timetable. The end product is a Policy matrix containing a set of recommendations for officials to check.
Hayden Miller, policy adviser to Commissioner Vega Pederson, said some recommendations have moved to the fore: The working group wants to see changes to the existing seasonal wood smoke reduction program, policies that address wood as a source of the heart, and expand efforts that… Educate people about the effects of wood smoke.
Top recommendations include:
- Extend the wood burning shutdown season from seasonal to year-round
- Extending the seasonal burn ban to areas in eastern Multnomah County
- Prohibit wood burning for ambient purposes only, such as B. Fire pits in the middle of outdoor seating in a restaurant
- Create an income-tested fuel switching grant program to help low-income households transition to lower-emission heating sources
- Ban on wood burning appliances in new homes and remodels
Low-income households are currently exempt from Multnomah County’s seasonal wood smoke reduction program, and the task force aims to help these households make the transition to cleaner heat sources.
“The approval of the funds for the transition to wood-smoke by the legislature is an exciting first step,” Miller said. “We expect to receive $500,000 over the next few months to fund changes. This program is administered by the [Department of County Human Services’s] weathering program.”
The board on Thursday will think about a resolution which sets a new vision and the air quality targets on the guidelines of the World Health Organization. Next week the Board will consider changes to its Wood Smoke Ordinancewhich include some of the recommendations, including expanding the seasonal reduction program year-round, changing messaging, and removing certified wood stoves as exempt.
“To be clear,” said Cohen of the working group, “once these changes are implemented, the next phase of work will be to help people realize that there is no safer way to smoke cigarettes or any other way.” Exposing secondhand smoke, there is no healthy way to burn wood.”
Wood Smoke Work Group recommendations
Wood smoke pollution in Multnomah County
Winter wood burning restrictions
2018 Wood Smoke Regulations