PORTLAND, Maine (AP) -- In the poorest state in New England, where residents already struggle to heat their homes, officials are worried a federal proposal to reduce wood smoke pollution will make new stoves too expensive and prevent Mainers from buying cleaner technology.
Nearly half of all Maine residents rely on some form of wood heat to keep warm in the winter, according to a 2008 study conducted for the Maine Center for Disease Control and the Maine Lung Association. The state ranks among the top five in the nation for residents heating only with wood, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
With so many residents relying on the cheap source of fuel, state officials have scrutinized a proposal released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would impose much higher standards on all new wood stoves or wood burning devices. Those rules were last updated in 1988.
The proposal would rely on residents buying new stoves to reduce the pollution in wood smoke that can aggravate lung conditions such as asthma and is linked to health issues including heart disease, bronchitis and cancer, according to government studies. Stoves already in use would be grandfathered in.
Patricia Aho, commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, has voiced concern that if no one can afford to buy better stoves, there would be no improvements in air quality.
"As drafted, we believe that the consequences would mean that more people would continue to use more inefficient old stoves, which would do little to reduce wood smoke in our area," DEP spokeswoman Jessamine Logan said.
Wood smoke lingers close to the ground and in homes, making it especially harmful, she said.
The price of new units could increase as much as 25 percent over the old models because of their complexity and production costs, said Mark Higgins, co-owner of EverGreen Home & Hearth, a wood stove dealer with locations in Ellsworth and Brewer.
If that happens, "people are going to clutch to their old inefficient stove," he said.
Aho says the solution to the potentially high cost of the new units would be an exchange program. In such a program, residents would receive a subsidy to trade in the inefficient old stoves for cleaner burning ones, making the cleaner technology affordable.
George Gekas, 66, a Bar Harbor resident and home builder who lives on a homestead, says he would replace his 38-year-old stove "in a heartbeat" if such a program existed. While he supports lowering wood smoke pollution, he says he couldn't afford to buy a new stove without taking out a loan.
"If there were not a subsidy, I would live with what I have," he said.
Those who heat their homes with wood say the low cost is one of the biggest draws. Jessica Fay, 45, says she and her husband installed a highly efficient stove in their home in Raymond five years ago. "It took us one year to pay off the cost of the stove and installation," she said, referencing the money they would have spent on heating oil. The stove cost around $3,500.
Fay said keeping her 1,600-square-foot home warm with wood costs a fraction of the $400 a month she paid for oil heat. Maine is more dependent on heating oil than any other state in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The DEP has a stove exchange program that would help residents swap out stoves, but it lacks funding, Logan said. That did not stop one manufacturer from implementing its own exchange program.
The North American branch of the Norwegian stove manufacturer Jotul helped dealers swap out 1,406 old stoves in North America by providing a $300 incentive and recycling the old stoves in 2013. "We would like to see the EPA funding change out programs," Logan said.
EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones emphasized that the rules in the proposal are just a first step and that the association will seek public input until May 5.
She said the "common sense" proposal would "help make heaters manufactured in the future cleaner and more efficient, leading to air quality and public health improvements across the country."
Jones said concerns that EPA rules would make new stoves more expensive were overstated. Any increase in cost to stoves would be limited to 2 to 6 percent, she said, contradicting Higgins' assertion that prices would skyrocket.
Many wood stove manufacturers already conform to at least some of the proposed rules, she said.
No matter the results of the EPA proposal, Gekas said one thing is clear: "I think they (Mainers) are going to burn wood no matter what. It's part of rural life here and they always will," he said.