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In a pushback against state regulators' proposal to block wintertime wood burning, Utah lawmakers are trying to exempt cleaner wood stoves from burn restrictions, effectively putting a ban on burn bans.

The House Natural Resources committee advanced legislation Tuesday to change burning rules despite concerns that it would micromanage the Department of Environmental Quality, set a troubling precedent and invite federal intervention into Utah's plans to reduce fine particulate air pollution.

HB396, sponsored by Rep. Brad Dee, R-Ogden, would require DEQ to spend $120,000 to rework state rules because regulators would find other sources of pollution to cut.

But Dee described his measure as a "middle-of-the-road approach" that would actually reduce emissions associated with wood burning by encouraging fireplace and stove owners to switch to cleaner stoves certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"It allows burning where natural gas service is limited or unavailable, and it allows burning during exigent situations like power outages," Dee said. "It also acknowledges those who have made investments in cleaner technologies and encourages others to do the same."

Critics say Dee's measure goes further than blocking seasonal bans; it actually weakens current restrictions meant to preserve clean air longer during inversions.

On the eve of burn season last year, Gov. Gary Herbert unveiled an idea for reducing particulate pollution — a ban on burning from November to March. Air quality watchdogs were overwhelmed with intense, often vitriolic, opposition during a public comment period in January, and agency leaders promptly told lawmakers they would rework the proposed burn restrictions.

But that didn't stop Dee from introducing HB396, which would direct DEQ to allow residents to burn during "yellow" air quality days if they use a low-emission wood stove and produce no visible smoke. The bill, which came at the urging of the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, leaves in place current rules that restrict all burning when air pollution is forecasted to exceed federal thresholds.

Speaking in favor of the bill, Clearfield resident Kim Marshall, who attended all seven of January's packed public hearings on the ban, claimed 98.7 percent of those who spoke opposed the ban.

"People seemed most concerned about keeping heating costs down," Marshall said. "Wood burning seems to stem from Americans' desire to be self-sufficient and free of excessive government intervention."

While many agree cleaner stoves deserve some consideration, Utah Air Quality Board members denounced Dee's bill as a legislative end-run around executive branch rulemaking, which was conducted in a responsive, transparent way.

"We are listening and the process is working," said board member Erin Mendenhall, a clean-air advocate and Salt Lake City councilwoman. "We have only begun this important conversation about how to balance serious health effects of wood smoke with the scientific data. Now is not a useful time to pass an industry-written law that closes options based on the best data available."

The bill also hamstrings DEQ, argued Tim Wagner of Utah Physicians for a Health Environment.

"It's bad policy to put forward a bill based on one constituency without consulting regulators or physicians," he said.

Studies show wood burning adds to particulate concentrations and sends toxin-filled smoke into neighboring homes, according to the physicians group.

Salt Lake City Democratic Rep. Joel Briscoe disputed Dee's claim the bill would reduce wood smoke emissions, noting an EPA-certified stove burning under optimal conditions emits 208 times more pollution than a natural gas furnace.

"It doesn't float over the whole valley. It stays in the neighborhood," Briscoe said. "I've had the experience of my wife not being able to breathe because of wood being burned in our neighborhood."

Alan Matheson, Herbert's environmental policy adviser, said all the "low-hanging fruit" for reducing air pollution has been plucked, and the remaining available strategies are bound to disrupt one interest group or another.

"If every time we have a rule that affects someone they go to the Legislature for relief, we will not be able to adequately address our air quality challenges," Matheson said. "There are safeguards in the process. The Legislature has authority to review and reverse those rules. We want to see the process play out."

Twitter: @brianmaffly