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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Burning Controversy

Air Date: Week of

Roland Morin stands by the outdoor wood boiler he and his wife use to heat their home. They decided to trade their oil furnace for an outdoor wood boiler after the textile mill in town shut down and Roland lost his job. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

With the price of oil soaring, an increasing number of homeowners are installing outdoor wood boilers to heat their homes. In Maine, where wood is plentiful, and burning wood is a tradition, smoke from the devices ignited a firestorm of controversy, pitting neighbor against neighbor. Living on Earth host Bruce Gellerman investigates the case for and against outdoor wood boilers.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman

[MUSIC: PAUL BUNYAN by Kit and Kaboodle from their album “Ready for Fun”.]

GELLERMAN: The state of Maine claims to be the birthplace of America’s timber industry and fabled lumberjack Paul Bunyan.

[MUSIC: PAUL BUNYAN by Kit and Kaboodle from their album “Ready for Fun”.]

GELLERMAN: In Bangor you’ll find what’s maybe the world’s largest statue of the mythic woodsman. In Maine, it’s not just a tall tale. 90 percent of the Pine Tree State is forested. It’s the highest percentage in the nation. The state seal and flag both feature a White Pine. The roots of forestry run deep in the hearts and minds of Mainers.

DURGIN-LEIGHTON: It’s tradition…it’s part of our culture.

GELLERMAN: Kathy Durgin-Leighton is town manager of Bowdoinham, Maine.

DURGIN-LEIGHTON: Wood is a natural resource here. We have plenty of it. People make their living logging. It’s just a way of life here. I think if you went down any country road you’d see a wood pile.

[SFX DOOR OPEN….and closing…]

GELLERMAN: There are half a dozen wood piles behind Roland and Dorina Morin’s home in Brunswick Maine.


GELLERMAN: The Morins have 75 acres of trees. Roland built their home with lumber from the trees. Out back, along the fence line, are neatly stacked cords of dry-split wood – mostly pine and a little hardwood.

GELLERMAN: So what a nice day!

ROLAND MORIN: Yup, beautiful day.


GELLERMAN: It’s mid winter—the air is crisp, the sky blue, and the white pines soar in the Morin’s back yard. It’s quintessential New England.

Jeff Welt says fumes from his neighbors’ outdoor wood boiler give him headaches and nausea. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)


GELLERMAN: Outside it’s an unseasonably warm 45 degrees. Inside the Morin home it’s a toasty 75 – thanks to the outdoor wood boiler Roland installed about 50 feet behind their house. It’s in a metal shed with a 12-foot high smokestack poking out of the top. The wood boiler looks a little like an outhouse.

ROLAND MORIN: You want to see the inside there?


ROLAND MORIN: Just stand back a little bit – you might have smoke coming out at you.


GELLERMAN: Outdoor wood boilers are relatively new devices. They’ve been around about a dozen years. Roland Morin’s wood boiler fire box is surrounded by a metal water-jacket. The burning wood heats the water, which is piped underground into his home.

GELLERMAN ON TAPE: And this fire, this little firebox, here, heats your entire house?

ROLAND MORIN: Oh yes. It could heat two or three that size. It doesn't take that much heat to heat the house.


GELLERMAN: So on a day like this, would you be burning much wood?

ROLAND MORIN: No, no, especially as warm as it is, hardly at all.


GELLERMAN: In the 1960’s, the Morins were paying 13 cents a gallon for fuel oil. But a few years ago, after the textile mill in town shut down, and Roland lost his job, he and Dorina decided to replace their old oil furnace with an outdoor wood boiler.

DORINA MORIN: We like it very, very much.

GELLERMAN: Dorina Morin says they like their wood boiler so much, two of their sons, who live just down the road, also bought them.

DORINA MORIN: It’s all outside and the heat is very steady. We don’t worry about any heat. And it also heats our hot water

GELLERMAN: Because the boiler is outdoors, there’s no wood mess inside the Morin’s house. And Roland has made a few special modifications to the wood boiler – so it burns clean.


ROLAND MORIN: When it's idling properly there's almost no smoke whatsoever.

GELLERMAN: Roland Morin’s sense of humor is as dry as the logs he throws into his wood boiler. The sign over his tool shop reads, ‘Smokey Hollow,’ because as he’s learned, where there’s a smoke from an outdoor wood boiler – often there’s a burning controversy.

Beth Thomas moved from a town that refused to ban outdoor wood boilers. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

ROLAND MORIN: This boiler here is known as the dirtiest boiler in Maine.


GELLERMAN: Yeah, so do you deserve that reputation?

ROLAND MORIN: Oh yeah. [LAUGHS.] No. No, I don't deserve it.

WELT: It was choking, pungent, acrid odors.

GELLERMAN: Jeff Welt lives 500 feet down the road and downwind from the Morin home and their outdoor wood boiler:

WELT: We were smelling pretty heavy fumes, I mean it would wake us up at night and we'd have headaches and nausea. So we can't keep our windows open. We do a lot of things traditionally, like hang our clothes out to dry – we don't like to use a dryer – stopped doing that. We have a big garden out back here, and we were really concerned last year about whether we should be eating food out of the garden.

DORINA MORIN: We never smell the smoke. And I can even open our bedroom window, which is not far from the wood boiler.

GELLERMAN: Dorina Morin doesn’t understand her neighbor Jeff Welt’s problem.

DORINA MORIN: And, I also in the spring and the fall, I hang out my clothes. And I take them in. They don't smell like smoke.

GELLERMAN: Good fences may make good neighbors but when it comes to wood smoke from outdoor boilers, Jeff Welt found, fences aren’t much help.

WELT: And then my neighbors started calling, the neighbors who live up and down the street, and they pass here on the way to work or they jog by or something, and they’re saying it's gross.

GELLERMAN: Again, Roland Morin:

ROLAND MORIN: They complain so much, every complaint brings someone else to say that this furnace is bad.

Bowdinham town manager Kathy Durgin-Leighton said talk of regulating outdoor wood boilers divided the community. “I think it was a statement of their rights to burn wood,” she said. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

WELT: People are not allowed to dump poison waste on my property. They're not allowed to poison the water that we drink. But meanwhile they're contaminating, poisoning the air that we breathe. That shouldn't be allowed.

GELLERMAN: But in most places wood boilers are allowed – and their number is growing dramatically nationwide.

RECTOR: We saw an exponential growth as oil prices began to rise.

GELLERMAN: Lisa Rector is a senior policy analyst with NESCAUM, the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, which represents air quality agencies in six states. Just three years ago, Rector says, there were about 150 thousand outdoor wood boilers in the US. Today there are a quarter of a million and she predicts the number will soon double.

RECTOR: We estimated that, left unchecked, and sales trends continue there would be half a million in place in 2010.

GELLERMAN: The reason wood boilers are so popular these days is simple.

DOUG THOMAS: Let's look at the big picture. Ok?

GELLERMAN: It’s money, says Maine representative Doug Thomas. His district is one of the poorest in the state, and wood boilers are popular there.

DOUG THOMAS: A lot of people need to replace foreign oil. They cannot afford to buy oil to heat their homes. Eighty percent of the homes in Maine are heated by oil and $3.29 a gallon on the incomes that we have here, with the cold winters that we have, people can't afford it. They have got to find alternatives.

GELLERMAN: And in Maine, the natural alternative to skyrocketing oil prices is wood. Wood is plentiful. It’s renewable – and if you replace downed trees with new ones, it’s carbon neutral.

But burning wood can also be deadly.

RECTOR: A lot of people think of wood smoke as that smell of Christmas. But actually wood smoke is a fairly toxic substance.

GELLERMAN: Lisa Rector of NESCAUM says wood boilers are by far, the dirtiest way to heat a home.

RECTOR: One outdoor wood boiler, the emissions, the PM emissions, the particulate matter emissions from these units is equivalent to 205 oil furnaces and three to eight thousand natural gas fired stations, or 50 idling diesel trucks. So it’s like having a truck stop in your backyard.

GELLERMAN: Rector says particularly troubling are the fine microscopic particles in smoke, specks so small they can lodge deep in your lungs.

RECTOR: Those particles, even if your doors are closed, your windows are closed, they’ll still find their way into your house. Those particles cause cardio-pulminary issues, asthma. They can be especially be of risk to sensitive populations such as children, the elderly, those with asthma. So wood smoke is not a benign substance. It’s one of the largest sources of fine particles in north America today.

GELLERMAN: Fine particulates in the air kill 60 thousand Americans a year – more than die in auto accidents. And besides fine particulates there are other toxic pollutants in wood smoke and creosote which builds up in smoke stakes – volatile organic compounds, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and dioxins, some known carcinogens.

GELLERMAN: Armed with this information, Jeff Welt in Brunswick, Maine, who lives near a wood boiler, decided to take action.

WELT: Twenty of my neighbors signed a petition that we sent to the state, saying it's adversely affecting the enjoyment of the neighborhood. You know – do something about it.

GELLERMAN: But there was nothing the State of Maine could do. Back in 2006 when Welt complained to state officials, there were no laws regulating outdoor wood boilers – not federal, state, or local. Wood boilers pit neighbor against neighbor and town against town. As the number of wood boilers increased, so did complaints. Lisa Rector of NESCAUM fielded many of them.

RECTOR: In many cases, and I’ve heard of them personally, people have called me looking for help. They’ve gone to their local town officials, their state officials, and there really is no regulatory avenue to address these.

Roland Morin stands by the outdoor wood boiler he and his wife use to heat their home. They decided to trade their oil furnace for an outdoor wood boiler after the textile mill in town shut down and Roland lost his job. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

GELLERMAN: Jeff Welt convinced officials in Brunswick, Maine, to pass an ordinance limiting wood boilers. New ones were banned in Brunswick, but old ones were allowed to remain, their use restricted to winter. A few other towns in Maine also approved ordinances restricting wood boilers, but most didn’t, and Lisa Rector says, people in those places affected by wood boiler smoke, had little recourse:

RECTOR: So they are required to either live with the situation, move, or bring a lawsuit and try to address it through private party nuisance law suits.

BETH THOMAS: And I said I’m not going to sue my neighbor. I’m not going to do that.

GELLERMAN: In fact, Beth Thomas of Bowdinham, Maine, wound up doing precisely that. She sued her neighbor over an outdoor wood boiler. Thomas, her husband and 2 small kids lived on the outskirts of town. It’s just north of Brunswick, which had restricted wood boilers – but Bowdinham still allowed them. The Thomas family lived downwind from a commercial laundry that used an outdoor wood boiler 24/7.

BETH THOMAS: I would be out in garden getting these headaches, intense headaches, and it would get hard to breathe. And if it were really bad, and the creosote-based smoke was coming into the house itself, which happens frequently, I would just put the kids in the car and go.

GELLERMAN: So, what did you do?

BETH THOMAS: What did I do. I called everybody I could find that I knew who might have some control or some information about this, and uh, from the Air Toxics to the Air Bureau to the – everybody – and the only thing people could say was, there's a nuisance law – you can sue them. Or you can move – that was the other thing. You can move.

GELLERMAN: Thomas’s lawsuit went nowhere. So she tried to get Bowdinham to regulate the boilers. At town meeting, the debate was intense. Town Manager Kathy Durgin-Leighton says it was about the most controversial issue in Bowdinham history.

DURGIN-LEIGHTON: It really divided people. It became quite a divisive issue. It was clear that the citizens of this town did not want to enact an ordinance that would limit or prohibit the use of outdoor wood boilers.

GELLERMAN: Why is that?

DURGIN-LEIGHTON: I think it was a statement of their rights to burn wood.

BETH THOMAS: We’re not after wood burning rights. That’s silly.

GELLERMAN: Again, Beth Thomas:

BETH THOMAS: I mean I grew up in Maine – we're wood burning people. This is what I was trying to tell neighbors, and it just was – it fell on deaf ears. I'm all for emissions control. What comes out of that stack needs to be filtered.

GELLERMAN: When Bowdinham residents voted to keep wood boilers unregulated, Thomas moved to Hallowell, Maine, a town that banned them. Hallowell is just south of the capitol, Augusta. There, Beth Thomas filed a complaint with officials demanding something be done on the state level to replace the patchwork of local ordinance. State lawmakers were reluctant to take up the issue.

BERRY: I couldn’t believe burning wood could possibly be a health threat.

GELLERMAN: State Representative Seth Berry became an unlikely champion of state limits on outdoor wood boilers – his father has one at his home. But one whiff of a poorly run wood boiler was all Berry needed to change his mind.

BERRY: If you walk through a cloud of creosote smoke, you know it, and your friends know it for a week because you can’t wash it out of your hair.

GELLERMAN: Berry became a man with a mission. His colleagues in the Maine legislature began calling the freshman lawmaker: Boiler Boy. Berry held hearings – angry, contentious meetings that drew huge crowds.

BERRY: These folks were told we were trying to take away their wood boilers and so they were given stickers, bright, fluorescent stickers, saying, ‘Don’t take away my right to burn wood,’ and they lined the halls of the legislature. And by the end of the hearing, once the technical information came out, once the personal stories of folks who lived next to certain problematic boilers came out, many people who had come that day to wear those stickers were taking the stickers off.

GELLERMAN: Berry’s emergency bill – phasing in limits on emissions and where wood boilers can be installed was passed overwhelmingly by Maine’s legislature, and now Maine joins Connecticut and Vermont with laws regulating outdoor wood boilers. Ohio and other states are considering similar measures, and years ago, Washington state banned them all together.

Maine representative Doug Thomas with the state seal, which features the white pine. Thomas says as long as oil prices are high, the popularity of outdoor wood boilers will be high too.(Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

And that’s what Maine representative Doug Thomas fears will happen in his state. Thomas was the major opponent to Seth Berry’s bill. And until it passed, he sold outdoor wood boilers.

DOUG THOMAS: I really don't want to sell them anymore because, the way these regulations that Maine are writing are, it's going to be complaint-driven enforcement. And so I might sell someone a six or eight thousand dollar wood boiler, and they've got another four or five thousand dollars to install them and they can't use. I don't want to do that to people. I'm not going to do that to people.

GELLERMAN: The federal government has been slow to respond to the wood boiler issue. Twenty years ago the US EPA began regulating indoor wood stoves, setting strict emission standards for them. And, in fact, Beth Thomas, who had to move because she lived near a polluting outdoor wood boiler has one of the new indoor stoves right in the living room of her home.

But she’s in the minority. Despite federal regulations, 90 percent of the estimated ten million indoor wood stoves in the US fail to meet emission requirements. The clean ones just haven’t caught on. That’s why Greg Green, from the EPA’s Office of Air Quality and Standards, hopes to speed things up with boilers. Instead of requiring new cleaner-burning wood boilers, The EPA is setting voluntary guidelines.

GREEN: You know, many times, our regulatory programs, by the time you go through the rule-writing process, and actually implement those rules, you're talking about a four or five year time period. But with the problems that we were seeing with these stoves, uh, with a voluntary program, uh, we realized that we could more than cut that time in half and start seeing emissions reductions, you know, in a one or two-year time period. So that's what we went with.

GELLERMAN: In January the EPA’s new guidelines for outdoor wood boilers went into effect, and manufacturers have started making cleaner burning wood boilers. Rodney Tollefson is vice president of Central Boiler. It’s the nation’s largest manufacturer. He says their new models cut emissions by as much as 90 percent over the old ones.

Roland Morin stands by his Work Shop next to his home in Brunswick, Maine. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

TOLLEFSON: We actually have people that have installed them and in one case we know of, the neighbor questioned this guy, “When are you going to get this thing running?” and the furnace had been up and running for almost a week and they didn’t even know it was operating.

GELLERMAN: The new, cleaner burning wood boilers are considerably more expensive, and haven’t been proven in the marketplace or backyards. But Maine state representative Doug Thomas isn’t giving up on wood boilers.

DOUG THOMAS: The technology has its place. It's not for urban areas, it's not for built-up areas, residential areas. It's for rural people who have land, and have access to wood that would otherwise be going to waste, and it's a great alternative source of heat for the right people in the right place.

[MUSIC on player-piano "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"]

GELLERMAN: Back in Brunswick, Maine, Roland Morins has finished loading logs into his outdoor wood boiler. It warms the home, where he, Dorina, and their ten kids lived through many a long cold Maine winter.

In the living room Roland relaxes by putting a scroll on their old player piano. It’s a scene of a time gone by, in a place where the white pines still grow incredibly high. But these days, the neighbors live closer than they used to – and yet in many ways, they’re more distant.



EPA Information on Outdoor Wood Boilers

Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management

Central Boiler, Inc.


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