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Natural but deadly: huge gaps in US rules for wood-stove smoke exposed

For decades, US officials have been trying to clean up the pollution from wood-burning stoves, which kills thousands of people each year.

But after spending millions getting people to switch to new models that are supposed to burn more cleanly, they're facing a startling revelation: the latest stoves might not be any less polluting than the previous ones.

A review of 250 certified stoves found unexplained data omissions, atypical lab practices and test results that were not reproducible. That's a serious problem for Fairbanks, Alaska, which struggles with some of the dirtiest air in the country due to wood heaters.

Floodlight's latest reporting with Alaska Public Media is a bit outside our usual focus on the powerful interests fighting climate action. But it falls well within our wheelhouse in other ways. It's complicated. It means life or death for real people. And it took both environmental expertise and shoe leather reporting to be told well. READ MORE

Go behind the scenes with our reporting partner Liz Ruskin, whose voice you no doubt know from public radio. This Q&A has it all: caribou haunches dangling from trees, glimpses of the northern lights and temperatures your Louisiana-born host shivers to consider.

(Also, if you contributed to Floodlight during our launch, you may have helped fund Liz's travel from Anchorage to Fairbanks. So thank you!) This transcript has been edited for length and clarity:

EH: Tell us about your regular beat. What does it encompass?

LR: I am the Washington correspondent for Alaska Public Media. We're the anchor of Alaska’s public radio network. I'm the only reporter who covers Alaska full-time in Washington. I go to Alaska, usually a couple times a year. I was there when the opportunity to report this story came up.

EH: Are you from Alaska?

LR: Yes, I was born and raised there. And I still own a house there that I rent out and visit on occasion. In Anchorage.

EH: What does covering Alaska issues from DC mean? Is it mainly the congressional delegation?

LR: It is a lot of covering the congressional delegation, usually, because Lisa Murkowski is in an interesting position nationally and in the state. She's one of the few swing senators in the Senate. She gets a fair amount done for Alaska because leadership tries to win her vote.

EH: So you cover all policy issues? Not just environment?

LR: Right, but a lot of Alaska’s policy issues are environment. It’s a resource state and the federal government owns so much of the land in Alaska.

EH: Were you aware of this issue of wood stove pollution before?

LR: I've been watching it over the years, when I was the Washington correspondent for Anchorage Daily News...I covered the edges of the air quality problems in Fairbanks. That was back in George W. Bush administration.

We have a great public radio team in Fairbanks. Reporter Dan Bross at KUAC has a lot of expertise in this. So as soon as I heard about this assignment, I called him and said, ‘Hey, what do you think?’ Part of this story, he had known for a long time, and other parts were new. He thought there was value in having a step back and looking at the broader picture.

EH: So when we first got in touch, you were in Anchorage and you flew up to Fairbanks, right? What’s that trip like? What’s Alaska like this time of year?

LR: It’s about an hour on a big jet. Anchorage was having a gorgeous winter with tons of snow and it, thankfully, never got above freezing. Nordic skiing is a big deal in Anchorage and you can do it right through town.

And then Fairbanks, it’s just much more Alaska. I mean it’s really hardcore. OK, this is the Anchorage girl in me talking, but it was March and Fairbanks was still below 0F.

Also, this year has been a phenomenal year for the northern lights—aurora borealis. I had an ulterior motive to see the aurora...the bottom line is, I didn’t. I saw a faint glow.

EH: So when you got to Fairbanks, how did you figure out who to talk to?

LR: The first thing I did was call the journalists. They had ideas and gave me historical perspective. I spoke to former government officials—the former borough mayor and a long-time legislator from Fairbanks who was also recently on the Assembly. I mean, you can't talk to anybody in Fairbanks politics who hasn't dealt with this issue.

And Patrice Lee. Everyone said to talk to her, she's kind of the main citizen-activist on air quality. She offered to drive around and show me the poor air quality spots, which we did. But when I visited it was not a cold day for Fairbanks. And so this temperature inversion that they have on cold days, that wasn't actually in effect, so their air quality was OK.

Patrice Lee became a clean air activist when her son collapsed outside his high school on an especially smoky day. Behind her is a new enterprise in Fairbanks: a kiln that uses waste heat from a nearby power plant to dry firewood. Dry wood burns cleaner. (Photo by Liz Ruskin)

EH: Can you briefly explain the temperature inversion? I don’t think we talk about that in our story.

LR: Basically, there’s a warmer cap that hovers over Fairbanks, so the colder air that’s underneath gets trapped by the hills that encircle Fairbanks. If you’re on those hills, there’s an iconic photo of Fairbanks with the power plant smokestacks poking up above the layer of fog and smoke. And below that layer, wood stove smoke is hanging low in the neighborhoods.

EH: What else did you learn in your interviews?

LR: One irony is that burning wood seems like it would be healthy and natural and renewable. And it's really not good in local areas of Fairbanks, over the long run. So for the local environment, for everyone's health, there is a push to use petroleum products instead of wood, because that's what makes good environmental sense in this case. They're trying to get people to switch to better burning oil stoves and natural gas.

The former borough mayor, Luke Hopkins, told me that he had a plan to pay people on poor quality air days to burn heating oil. He also talked about wanting to rent a warehouse to dry out everyone's wood. The assembly wouldn't go along with it. He says, look, now they've got their firewood kiln right across the street from where I wanted to do it.

EH: So obviously, the switch to oil and gas might reduce air pollution, but it would still cause its own pollution and contribute to climate change, right? Did that come up in interviews?

LR: I think it was unspoken that the immediate harm to public health was the wood smoke and they had to do something about that. That wasn't optional.

The other thing that I think is really interesting about Fairbanks is that while the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline runs right by Fairbanks, they don't have a ready supply of natural gas.

And propane does not work at very cold temperatures. Apparently it liquefies and can't really be used in a normal Fairbanks winter temperature of -40F, -50F. People don't want to rely on it, if they use it at all. There's a new utility in Fairbanks that has been trucking natural gas to a storage facility, and they are building a network of natural gas lines. But it doesn't extend to all the houses.

EH: Who else did you talk to who might not appear in our reporting?

LR: The stove dealer in Fairbanks at the Woodway was a pretty fascinating guy. Kent Severns. He has been selling stoves in Fairbanks since the 70s, before there was an awareness of the air quality issues. He’s now in a heavily regulated business, and at the same time it’s grown enormously with all the stove change-out incentives. He’s stepped up and embraced the new stove technology and wants to make sure that everyone in Fairbanks burns wood properly.

He told me when his neighbor, who was a customer, was sending a lot of smoke into the air, he said finally “I very gently went to him and said, ‘let’s see what you’re doing.’”

I just got the idea that every time Kent sees somebody's house putting out a whole lot of smoke, he feels responsible.

EH: How was your process for audio different than for text on this story?

LR: This is public radio, so I gathered a lot of sounds while I was there. The sound of a wood stove being fed, the sound of roaring fire. I have a lot of sound from the stove dealership, where I had the rep from Blaze King and Kent explain to me how the catalytic converter works. Of course, I was interested in what they had to say but I especially liked it when they were fiddling with the thermostat spring and the handles. I pointed an enormous microphone at them to catch those sounds.

And I'll have the sounds of Glenn, the guy we open with, walking through the woods, and the very dry Fairbanks snow crunching under our feet.

EH: It sounds like your experience reporting out the story was very different than mine.

~Laughter from both~

LR: I know, I got all the fun parts.

I have to say I absolutely loved going to visit Glenn, who’d just finished his little tiny cabin. It just looked like Alaskaland. He had a thick sod roof on his tiny cabin, and it had a couple feet of snow on it. He had a caribou haunch hanging from a tree outside his place, that he’d hunted. He said it was also his bird feeder, and his “Glenn feeder.” It had been a long winter for everybody, and he’d made friends with the gray jays.

I think when you're in a cold place like that you really come to appreciate the birds that stick around for winter, and he seemed very bonded with the gray jays, and they with him.

Glenn Helkenn built a small home for himself on the outskirts of Fairbanks. A tiny wood stove is his sole heat source. Unlike homes with plumbed water, his cabin can safely freeze if he's not around to stoke the fire. (Photo by Liz Ruskin)

EH: You said in our story his cabin is 96 square-feet?

LR: People have walk-in closets bigger than his cabin. It also didn’t have a full-size door, I think to conserve heat. I’m a small person and it required quite an enormous duck to get into.

EH: Is there anything else you wanted to tell people about that didn’t make it into our reporting?

LR: I did want to say one other thing that came up again, and again, that didn't make it into the story, which was self-reliance.

A lot of Fairbanks people said, ‘if the power goes out, which it often does, my oil furnaces can't work without electricity, but my wood stove—I can run it in the dark for days.’ Fairbanks people are pretty hardy and self-reliant, and a fuel that they can harvest themselves is going to be very appealing.

Local policymakers told me there was always an exception for staying alive—that if other heating sources were not available, of course you can use your wood stove, even on a bad air day.

EH: So, what was your experience working with Floodlight?

LR: Well, first of all, it was really great to have an opportunity to delve into this story that I've been covering pieces of over a couple of decades. It was great to have an opportunity to look at the whole picture. That was fantastic. Also, I got the better end of this deal, because you were reporting on policy, and I was there to cover the fun part, walking into people's lives and asking them about how they heat with wood and what heating with wood means to them.

I couldn't have done this on my own, because there's just not enough time in a normal reporting cycle to take a big step back and look at this whole issue.

EH: Well we’ve talked about this and how I definitely could not have done this on my own. And not only that, but I think I would have had kind of a half story if I tried. I wouldn’t have had the same kind of local voices you had.

LR: Happy to oblige.

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