During the recent cold spell, it’s likely many Los Angeles County residents cozied up next to their fireplaces to keep warm, unaware that burning wood could is restricted when air pollution levels are higher than usual.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District’s “Check Your Burn” program hopes to improve air quality during the fall and winter months – when fireplace use is the highest – by encouraging residents to check no-burn alerts before turning on their wood-burning fireplaces, backyard fire pits or wood stoves.
Alerts are issued by SCAQMD for 24-hours in specific areas or the entire South Coast Air Basin, which includes Orange County and the non-desert portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.
While 88 percent of air emissions in the region come from mobile sources, according to SCAQMD, wood burning can emit harmful levels of pollution. The air pollution agency estimates that more than 1 million households in the South Coast Air Basin actively burn wood in their fireplace. The smoke from those fireplaces can emit more than five tons of harmful PM2.5, a fine particle that increases air pollution levels that can cause throat, eye irritation, and aggravate asthma and other respiratory symptoms.
Air pollution experts warn that breathing high levels of fine particulate matter over a long period can lead to serious health problems.
“Residential burning emits pollution at such a low level it can spread at ground level and enter homes, which can be detrimental to those with respiratory illnesses,” said SCAQMD’s Spokesman Tina Cox.
Instead of burning wood, the agency suggest residents turn to candles, electric fireplaces or upgrade to natural gas logs, which are up to 99 percent cleaner and exempt from no-burn alerts. The local, regional air pollution agency also encourages residents to take advantage of its wood stove and fireplace replacement incentive program.
Residents who do not follow restrictions could face fines as high as $500.
“We encourage everyone to do their part to improve our air quality and stay informed of no-burn days,” said SCAQMD’s Executive Officer Wayne Nastri in a statement.
Although wood-burning fireplaces and permanent outdoor wood fire pits are prohibited in new home construction, SCAQMD does not believe restrictions alone will make fireplaces and fire pits a thing of the past.
“We don’t foresee a complete phase out of residential fireplaces but rather continuing to prohibit wood burning when fine particulate pollution levels are high,” said Cox.
To sign up for no-burn alerts visit their website here.
Inside Climate News – Southern California has some of the dirtiest air in the country, but it’s a lot more breathable than it used to be. Much of the credit goes to the powerful regional agency responsible for stricter rules and enforcing federal air quality standards over the last 19 years.
Now that agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, is at the center of a political power struggle. A new Republican majority has worked to roll back the district’s innovative policies that led to cleaner air. That prompted concern among clean-air advocates and the poor and minority communities disproportionately affected by the region’s dirty air that the board would continue to erode pollution controls. So they are fighting back.
They rallied behind a bill that awaits a decision this month by the state Assembly. It was passed by the state Senate and calls for adding three seats to the district’s 13-member board, to be filled by “a bona fide nonprofit environmental justice organization that advocates for clean air and pollution reductions.”
“The system is broken and the board does not reflect the voice of the people who are suffering in their communities,” said Lizette Hernandez, a Southern California organizer for the Sierra Club, an environmental organization.
Board member Shawn Nelson, a Republican, called the bill a power grab by state Democratic lawmakers. It is a “kangaroo effort all to perpetuate this idea that this board is out of control, doesn’t care about clean air, which is completely ridiculous,” he said.
The battle began when Republican appointees gained a majority of the district in January. Traditionally, the board has operated in a non-partisan manner. It was led since 1997 by executive director Barry Wallerstein.
But the new Republican majority immediately changed direction. In a closed-door meeting in March, it finalized a controversial rule allowing oil refiners, power plants and other major polluters to release more smog-producing emissions. It also ousted Wallerstein.
“This was an ‘aha’ moment when it became so clear that the oil industry had so much power and influence over this board,” said Adrian Martinez, a staff attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice.
“The board wasn’t doing its job to protect the region and the people who were suffering,” he said. “That had to change.”
Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) introduced the bill to expand the board and it passed the Democratic-controlled state Senate in May.
The state Assembly, where Democrats also hold an edge, is expected to consider the measure
this month. Gov. Jerry Brown has not said whether he’d sign it.
The South Coast district is California’s largest air quality agency by population: More than 40 percent of the state’s 39 million people live within its boundaries, which include Orange County and large portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
The strategy of Republican board members is to all but eliminate traditional regulatory enforcement. The district has proposed a voluntary compliance plan that would essentially pay companies to reduce emissions, via financial incentives. Republicans say those would reach $1 billion a year by 2031, but the environmental groups are skeptical it would work.
Nelson defended the board’s change in direction, saying regulations put a burden on business that ultimately affects everyone.
“If our effort to help our local citizens and balance the interests of poor people suffering the effects of increased fuel costs and other things—along with our absolute desire to continue to clear the air—if we didn’t get that perfect, then so be it,” Nelson said. “But it wasn’t for lack of love, effort and appreciation for the people we represent.”
Many lower-income and minority communities are located near power plants, refineries, oil and gas fields, and other facilities that pump out volatile organic compounds and greenhouse gases. For instance, the Los Angeles community of Wilmington and the city of Santa Monica are only 25 miles apart. Eleven refineries and oil and gas extraction facilities are located in Wilmington; 90 percent of the 53,000 residents are people of color and the median household income is $40,000.
In Santa Monica, where 78 percent of the 92,000 residents are white, there are no refineries or oil facilities and the median household income is $73,000 a year.’
A 2014 national study of the demographics of air pollution exposures included parts of the South Coast district. Researchers found that there, on average, people of color are exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide in outdoor air pollution 38 percent higher than those of white people.
“What we have seen for the South Coast is that disadvantaged communities of color tend to have higher exposures to pollutants,” said Julian Marshall, one of the researchers. “It’s a pretty consistent pattern and trend.”
Hernandez, the Sierra Club organizer who lives in a part of South Los Angeles surrounded by refineries and oil and gas production facilities, said the communities most in need of environmental representation are those that have suffered for decades under the weight of racial bias and economic neglect. Putting environmental justice groups in charge of air quality would be a sea change.
Carol Hernandez, 32, a social worker in San Bernardino County, grew up in Fontana, where nearly 60 percent of the population is Hispanic. When she was a girl in the 1980s, the air was foul, and it’s still foul now, she said. Hernandez (who is not related to Lizette Hernandez) said her 5-year-old daughter, Alani, often gasps and wheezes in the grips of asthma attacks, which she says are aggravated by the air pollution.
“We can’t spend a lot of time outside playing because it gets so bad she can’t breathe,” Hernandez said. The air quality in San Bernardino County has been graded F by the American Lung Association because of the health hazards posed by the bad air, though it has shown improvement in the last decade.
“I don’t think anybody cared what was happening when I was little,” she said, “and they don’t care now.”
A longer version of this story was published Aug. 5 on the Inside Climate News website.