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Morgan•Many a Thomas Kinkade painting depicts cozy wood smoke puffing out of a cottage on a cold morning.
But relentless smoke from a neighbor's outdoor wood-fired boiler became a waking nightmare for Morgan residents Martha and Clayton Ericson and their four children.
For seven years, they asked Chad Willis to stop burning because the heating system's smoke was not only annoying, but harmful to their physical and emotional health, according to their lawsuit, which went to trial last week in 2nd District Court.
"I said, 'Chad, the smoke is killing us. It is getting into my home. My clothes are starting to smell like it. Is there anything you can do to control the smoke?' " Ericson testified Friday before Judge Noel Hyde. "He said, 'I can't control the smoke. This is just the way the boiler works.' "
So Willis continued burning, even allegedly stuffing trash and construction waste into the boiler.
The lawsuit may seem just a dispute between two Morgan County neighbors, but it underscores a growing concern for state air quality managers. There are just 150 heavy-polluting wood-fired boilers in operation in Utah, and state environmental regulators have clamped down on their installation.
But the case may have implications as Utah struggles to find a way to accommodate homeowners who still use wood to heat their homes. If neighbors in a rural community can turn on each other over a polluting home heating system, some wonder if wood-burning stoves and fireplaces in an urban neighborhood might be next.
New research shows smoke from residential wood burning greatly adds to the fine particulate matter that fouls valley air on inverted winter days. There are growing calls to ban the practice, which is already highly restricted along the urbanized Wasatch Front.
The Ericsons say the smoke from Willis' boiler triggered headaches and shortness of breath and eroded Martha Ericson's health, already challenged by multiple sclerosis. She suffered respiratory infections and asthma, her doctors testified.
Willis' attorney Randall Lee Marshall argued the Ericsons failed to take timely legal steps to prevent the alleged nuisance, so it is too late to seek redress in the courts.
"He [Willis] is one of the many who regularly burned wood in a county which is not restricted from such an activity," Marshall wrote in legal documents.
Many in Spring Hollow, the Ericson's semi-rural subdivision on North Blue Sage Road, said they didn't mind the smoke. Only the Ericsons complained, according to Willis.
"I was very concerned. I regularly checked with every neighbor," he testified.
Hyde fielded three days of testimony last week in his Morgan courtroom and will reconvene the bench trial Oct. 29 to hear closing arguments. He is to rule whether Willis negligently created a nuisance and, if so, whether the Ericsons are entitled to remunerative and punitive damages.
The trouble with wood
Wood smoke, rich in chemical pollutants, is far more hazardous than most people realize, according to Brian Moench, a Salt Lake City anesthesiologist and clean-air activist who testified for the Ericsons as an expert witness.
"The particulate matter is generally much smaller than pollution generated by other urban sources. Those particles hang in the atmosphere longer, and because of their small size, they more easily penetrate other people's homes," Moench said in an interview. "If wood is burned hot and quickly, the toxicity profile is cleaner than were it a slow burn. Slow burn is what characterizes these wood boilers."
Outdoor wood boilers, or OWBs, heat water which is piped into the home to drive either radiant heating or forced air systems. They are becoming popular in some places since they effectively heat homes with cheap, locally sourced fuel.
But a 2007 study by the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Management found boiler impacts far outweigh their benefits due to their poor combustion design.
"The current generation of OWBs emits at least 20 times more emissions than the current generation of EPA-certified woodstoves, and emits as much particulate matter as 50 to 500 diesel trucks," the study states.
State regulators were caught flat-footed as the first wood-fired boilers were installed about 10 years ago.
In rural areas, the heating systems are less of a problem because the smoke disperses. But along the pollution-choked Wasatch Front, they can create a sort of micro-inversion, according to Joel Karmazyn of the Utah Division of Air Quality. He helped craft Utah's first regulations for wood-fired boilers in 2012.
"There is not enough buoyancy for the smoke to go up the stack. The stack is not heated and the air is cold," Karmazyn said. "The smoke comes out and hangs there and drops. The boilers themselves cause inversions. An inefficient unit is going to create a nuisance."
Utah's rules now bar the installation of new boilers anywhere in urban areas that are out of attainment for fine particulate pollution. Morgan is just outside Salt Lake's non-attainment zone.
In the rest of the state, any boiler sold must be "phase II compliant," meaning they meet high emissions standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"We maybe have 100 to 150 in Utah. We aren't sure," Karmazyn said. "They aren't that popular in Utah. They are very expensive."
Even though his home was equipped with a central furnace, Willis installed the boiler in late 2006 after informing the Ericsons that it would be fired with natural gas, Clayton Ericson testified. To their dismay they saw the 8-foot stack belch wood smoke after Willis fired it up. The unit was located just 150 feet north, or upwind, from the Ericson home.
Relations between the neighbors quickly soured.
Ericson, who served as the homeowners association president at the time, told his neighbor the boiler violated subdivision covenants and he should switch it to natural gas.
"He didn't care. He was going to do what he wanted to do. He told me, 'Sue me,'" Ericson testified. He alleged Willis turned other neighbors against his family.
Some neighbors did appear in court on Willis' behalf, testifying that the Ericsons had "a reputation for stirring up trouble," and the smoke wasn't a problem.
"We like the smell of the smoke. We burn ourselves," Candace Pope said.
At the time Willis installed his unit, Utah did not have regulations specific to such boilers. But his smoke allegedly exceeded state opacity thresholds and he violated other rules restricting what people can burn.
"My clients saw them burn all sorts of things plastic, cardboard, grease, MDF," the Ericsons' attorney David Stevenson said. "Even during summer months, they were burning trash in there. They were using it as an incinerator."
Willis said he shared his plans to burn pallets with all his neighbors.
"I told them exactly how it works. We could get free wood, so we intended to burn that wood," Willis said.
He said the boiler was not designed to handle trash and denied doing so.
"Plastic ruins the inner liner of the boiler," Willis said.
The two sides can agree on one thing: the boiler was ugly.
"Martha said it was the ugliest thing. It looks like an outhouse," Willis testified. "I agree. It looks like an outhouse."
That was the reason, he said, he kept the stack low. But in a later effort to disperse the smoke, Willis raised the stack to 12 feet, then to 20 feet.
Last year, Willis sold his home and moved to Mountain Green.
"We moved because of this conflict," Willis said. "The picture-taking did not stop during the summer. It didn't matter what you were doing. My wife and I decided we were done."
The new owners got rid of the boiler, which Willis spent $10,000 installing.