Seven States Just Sued The EPA For Failing To Update Standards For Wood-Burning Furnaces

CREDIT: Taylor WaterStoves
CREDIT: Taylor WaterStoves

Seven states and the group Earthjustice have filed two related lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to update emissions standards for wood-burning boilers.

It’s an often overlooked environmental concern. The boilers resemble outhouses with chimneys, and are used to heat water that’s piped into a home’s radiator system. Along with furnaces and other wood-burning sources, they emit soot — a potentially dangerous pollutant that falls under the under the regulatory authority of the Clean Air Act’s New Source Performance Standards.

The seven states are New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont, and Earthjustice’s lawsuit is on behalf of the American Lung Association, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Clean Air Council, and Environment and Human Health, Inc. According to the complaint, which was filed Wednesday, the EPA is required by the Clean Air Act to review standards for air pollution that can endanger health every eight years. But the last time the EPA updated the emission limits for wood-burning sources was back in 1988, when they found that pollutants in wood smoke endanger public health. But the EPA exempted heating devices from standards, including wood-heaters, the same year. So the lawsuits call on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to order EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to review and revise the standards, and to bring heating devices into the rules. The revisions would only cover new units, and would not affect existing sources.

“The EPA set the current standards for wood-burning devices more than a quarter century ago, years before the first of the landmark studies that demonstrated that particles like those that make up woodsmoke can be deadly,” said Janice Nolen, Assistant Vice President, National Policy, for the American Lung Association. “Since then, research into the pollutants from wood-burning has grown rapidly. EPA has abundant evidence that the standards from a generation ago endanger public health.”


Wood smoke includes pollutants that research has linked to asthma attacks, heart attacks, and premature death, according to a study by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s Office in 2008. The burners that aren’t as clean or advanced can release particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants, and carcinogens, especially in wintertime when their use obviously ramps up. Data recently released by the EPA showed that soot from wood-heaters accounts for 13 percent of all the soot pollution in the country.

The wood boilers have become popular for residential heating in the Northeast, Northwest and Midwest, and thousands are installed by homeowners each year. Schneiderman’s office estimates that 14,500 outdoor wood boilers were sold just in New York state between 1999 and 2007. “We’ve seen the market for outdoor boilers expand over the past two decades and over 10,000 units are sold each year,” said David Presley, Staff Attorney at the Clean Air Council. “EPA and the industry developed voluntary outdoor wood boiler standards in 2010, but most devices sold fail to meet even these voluntary standards.”

Several of the states involved in the lawsuit have far more stringent state-level standards for the wood-fired boilers and furnaces than the EPA, and have even banned them in some instances. New York state, for example, adopted regulations in April 2011 that all new models sold in the state must burn at least 90 percent cleaner than older models. But a plan to expand the rules to existing boilers was put on hold by public opposition, particularly in the state’s northern rural areas where farms and homes that regularly rely on the heaters would need to pay thousands of dollars to replace them. Washington State’s standards for wood-burning devices are 40 percent more stringent than the EPA’s current standards.

EPA’s own data shows that many current devices far surpass even the Washington standards. Some widely-sold wood-burning devices, such as large outdoor wood boilers, are not covered at all by EPA’s current standards.

The lack of equivalent national standards puts the local industries and businesses involved in wood furnaces and boilers in the more stringent states at a disadvantage. So the states in the lawsuit see national standards as a matter of fair play and a level playing field,” making less-polluting wood heaters more widely available in all states.

An EPA spokeswoman said Wednesday that the agency is reviewing the lawsuit.