It was 1969 that the little village of Woodstock, NY was the center of a parallel universe, a place where 500,000 people went for a few days to enjoy music in a farmer's field and to protest the policies that produced the war in Vietnam. But now, a little more than 35 years later, Woodstock is simply another quiet place in the wooded mountains 110 miles north of New York City.
Had you been to Woodstock on a recent and warm November weekend you could have gone to the flea market just behind the few blocks that make up the "downtown" area. The vendors had the usual things you find at such events -- old clothes, fresh fruit from a nearby orchard, crafts, rusted tools and magazines from long ago. But what was most striking about the day was a fire burning in a nearby house and the scent of burning wood that cut through the crisp and clear mountain air.
It was wonderful.
The warmth and whiff of a log fire have been enjoyed by normal humans for millions of years. Not only is a wood fire a delight, it's also a growing necessity: In the face of rising fuel costs an increasing number of homes are turning to wood for heat. For example, it's estimated by New Hampshire Public radio that as many as 10 percent of all homes in the state -- a very cold state -- are heated primarily with wood.
Wood is cheap and it's made in the U.S. Even so, the Environmental Protection Agency is aghast at the pollution that wood fires allegedly produce.
In a "consumer information sheet" the EPA says that "toxic air pollutants are an important component of wood smoke. A group of toxic air pollutants known as polycyclic organic matter includes benzo(a)pyrene, which may cause cancer. Dangerous releases of toxic air pollutants can occur if you burn wood in a fireplace, old woodstove, or old fireplace insert."
Just like an old car, you can imagine that an old woodstove or an old fireplace insert might be less efficient than newer models. But what about "a fireplace." Where is the term "old?"
The EPA says that "roughly six percent of all fine particle pollution (PM 2.5) in the United States comes from wood smoke. In some areas where woodstove use is high, wood smoke can account for a greater share of PM 2.5. Replacing older wood stoves with EPA-certified stoves can reduce wood smoke -- by 70 percent on average."
And just how much would such retrofitting cost?
In Lincoln County, MT a $1 million grant was used to "install new, EPA-certified stoves and chimneys free of charge for about 300 lower-income households."
For anyone else, of course, it's not free of charge. If it cost $1 million to modernize 300 households, that's $3,333 per property. Given this expense, it's obvious that 6 percent of the Nation's fine particulate pollution will not be reduced by 70 percent because few people will replace older stoves and chimneys any faster than necessary.
USA Today reports there are 10 million existing wood-burning stoves in the U.S. so at $3,333 each we're potentially looking at more than $33 billion in repair costs to reduce 4.2 percent (70 percent of 6 percent) of the nation's fine particle pollution. Of course, there some 37 million home chimneys in the U.S. which no doubt also need attention. (See: Hidden cost in wood burning: Pollution, Nov. 14, 2005)
While the EPA effort is surely beneficial to chimney sweeps and replacement stove manufacturers, you have to wonder about government efforts that might be more productive. For instance, has anyone noticed that the price of home heating is soaring? Would it not make sense to reduce our energy dependence by improving home furnace standards?
Guess what? In 1987, according to the New York Times, the Energy Department was given seven years to come up with minimum fuel efficiency standards for home furnaces. Although millions of homes have been built since then and no doubt huge numbers of furnaces have been replaced, federal efficiency regulations for home furnaces are still not in place. (See: Washington Fiddles While Oil Burns, Aug. 25, 2005)
The government is now being sued by environmental groups for failing to establish furnace performance criteria. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the "new standards could save enough energy each year to meet the needs of up to 12 million American households, and avoid the need for dozens of new electric power plants."
So there you have it, your tax dollars at work. The EPA is pursuing goals that can't be met at costs that can't be justified while the Energy Department could be saving the nation billions of dollars each year in needless energy costs but has failed to do so. The good news is that government policies at least keep revenues high for energy companies and OPEC members -- and isn't that the purpose of government?