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For Castle Rock resident, where there's smoke there's ire

Castle Rock resident Pat Higgins is concerned about the amount of smoke coming from some outdoor wood boilers in Castle Rock Township.

Castle Rock resident Pat Higgins is upset, and he's not just blowing smoke.

Higgins is frustrated because he can't find anyone that will listen to his concerns about the amount of smoke being produced by outdoor wood boilers in the township, especially in his neighborhood.

His house sits on a hill on Audrey Avenue. He moved the house there in December, 2007. It didn't take long, he said, before he started to notice the lingering smoke that was being generated at a neighbor's place a quarter of a mile away. It was hard for Higgins - who has asthma - to miss, especially when the smoke started rolling up the hill and coming into his own home.

Wood boilers

It is not illegal to operate an outdoor wood boiler. The stoves are frequently used to keep homes and water heated. Wood boilers resemble a small shed. They are designed to accommodate large wood loads that can burn for many hours without tending. Wood is placed in a firebox and ignited. Water in a reservoir that surrounds the firebox is heated by the flame.

The heated water passes through underground pipes and into the home, where it is circulated through the home's heating system. Thermostats control the rate at which the fuel burns by controlling the amount of air that is supplied to the firebox. When the home reaches its desired temperature, the firebox is deprived of oxygen, causing the fire to smolder until more heat is needed and the process is repeated.

The wood boilers are considered a primary source for producing heat, but the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency advocates responsible use for the stoves, because the wood boilers emit harmful chemicals.

According to the MPCA's web site, the fine particles - or "particulate matter" also known as PM - produced by outdoor wood boilers can trigger asthma attacks, much like the particles in secondhand smoke can.

The MPCA cites many findings from the Environmental Protection Agency on the matter. Among those, the EPA finds wood smoke contains carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter. Wood smoke PM contains wood tars, gases, soot and ashes, and can go deep into lungs or even pass through the lungs and enter the bloodstream.

Long term exposure, according to the MPCA, can lead to chronic obstructive lung disease, chronic bronchitis, increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The MPCA also discourages the burning of green or wet wood, plywood or particle board, treated wood, plastics, garbage, colored newsprint or magazines, or pesticide-treated seed. Those materials may release chemicals that are harmful to one's health and the environment, according to the MPCA.

In need of help

Higgins said he approached his neighbors and asked them to burn more responsibly. He alleges that one, possibly two, of the neighbors are also burning trash in the wood boiler. One neighbor addressed the situation and is paying closer attention to the smoke his boiler is emitting, but Higgins said the other is ignoring the request.

In an effort to get some regulations established, Higgins went to the Castle Rock Township Board. So far, he said, the matter has not been addressed. He has sought opinions from Dakota County and even contacted state officials but nothing has come to light and he's frustrated.

"I walk out of my house and up the hill and I'm out of wind," he said. "It's slowly killing me."

Higgins has done quite a bit of investigation on the subject. He's found that the city of Stillwater just passed an ordinance in March that declares outdoor wood boilers to be a public nuisance and prohibits their installation and continued use. Forest Lake, Oak Park Heights and Princeton also have regulations in place.

Given that, Higgins knows something can be done. It's happened in other communities. He'd just like to see it happening a little closer to home. Especially, his home.

"You know how when you're driving through the country and you get that whiff of air that reminds you of a Terry Redlin print and it makes you feel all warm and you smile? Try living with that scent in your home all the time," he said. "So many people think it's out in the country, nobody is out there so it doesn't matter. But it does matter if you can't breathe."

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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