We would welcome any woodsmoke stories you would like to share. We’re interested in your experience – has wood smoke affected your health, or the enjoyment of your property? What steps have you had to take to mitigate your exposure to harmful pollution? Has it imposed unreasonable expenses upon you? Please let us know via email@example.com and we’ll publish your story here.
WOODSMOKE POLLUTION AND THE GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE
The following story is from 66-year-old David. He lived in Canberra’s northern suburbs. He already battled with a lung condition. To compound his problems, he battled with the ACT Government bureaucracy for several years over one neighbour’s polluting wood heater which he believed was making his health condition worse and affecting other residents in his neighbourhood. On a number of occasions David was admitted to Canberra Hospital with breathing difficulties. Out of frustration and with the lack of support from the ACT Government bureaucracy, he decided to sell up and move, but he died in early 2023 before he could relocate to a cleaner neighbourhood. It is not known if residential woodsmoke pollution caused his death, but there is no doubt the stress of dealing with an unsympathetic neighbour and government inaction played a significant role. Before David passed away, he asked Clean Air Canberra to tell his story. It highlights the problem that the onus of proof rests with those whose health is affected by residential woodsmoke pollution rather than those who are responsible for it. David describes his experience with the ACT Government bureacracy over a polluting wood heater as a “game of cat and mouse.”
We trust the ACT Government to champion a clean and healthy environment, but after my experience over recent years I question the effectiveness of its policies and strategies employed to minimise harm from wood heater emissions in Canberra.
Results of the ACT Government’s 2022 Wood Heater Survey suggest that the long running educational media campaign and wood heater replacement program need overhauling and promotion. Most survey respondents were unaware of wood heater regulations and standards in the ACT, while only 41% were aware of the Wood Heater Replacement Program. The Survey also indicates that procedures used to address air quality concerns in Canberra fail to meet expectations. Over 50% of respondents living in Woden, Weston, Molonglo, and Tuggeranong are impacted by smoke from a neighbour’s wood heater. Of those who reported instances to Access Canberra, more than 70% were dissatisfied with the response. The survey affirmed that these complaints often remain unresolved. While current strategies plan to progressively address the air quality impact of wood heaters, opportunities offering some immediate relief seem to be ignored. The routine approach to regulatory compliance by the ACT Environment Protection Authority (EPA) relies heavily on the expectation that complainants resolve matters themselves. Whenever a satisfactory outcome cannot be achieved, it appears the ACT EPA prefers to step away rather than consider a fresh approach. I had been warned that dealing with the EPA here in Canberra was both arduous and futile, which is demonstrated here in my account of events spanning several years.
My neighbours have both ducted gas and electric reverse-cycle systems, and a wood fire heater which they previously used occasionally and responsibly. Over the years, their growing preference to use the wood fire heater became apparent with a steady increase in emissions. The smoke produced from mid-morning through into the afternoon became markedly thicker as winter advanced. I approached my neighbour and he suggested I stay inside since the timber he burnt had been painted. Thick plumes of smoke continued to be produced for 4 to 5 hours when the heater in use. It became difficult to remain outside at times when lingering smoke caused throat irritations and nausea. To reduce the odours entering my house I wrapped my windows with plastic sheets using duct tape and replaced the draught seals around the windows and door frames. Discussions with my neighbour continued but he became less accepting of my concerns each time I raised the matter. The situation improved as the season changed but the smoke only ceased completely once the heater was no longer in use.
In April 2019 the smoke became problematic again, drifting along the street and into homes during the day. The changing colours of the smoke suggested a mix of fuels were used. I contacted the ACT Government’s portal, Access Canberra, to formally complain about the excessive volume of smoke and odour. Access Canberra initiated contact with the Environment Protection Officer (EPO) on duty. Others in the street also called Access Canberra after experiencing eye irritation and coughing when they were outside. My neighbour could often be seen cutting up what appeared to be scrap timber with his power saw and using his chain saw to reduce branches I believe had been collected and dragged along the street to his home.
Others in the street had approached my neighbour at different times about the increasing heavy smoke, but he remained indifferent to our concerns. His wife remarked that he wasted nothing. My neighbour stated we would just have to put up with it and suggested installing double glazing like he had to properly seal our windows. After several conversations the heater started much later each day, but the thick smoke persisted for several hours each time. I closed off a reverse cycle heater that faced my neighbour and covered my windows again with the plastic sheets used previously. I sealed off my gas heater floor vents to reduce the smoke particles and odour seeping in through the main unit outside.
The EPOs on duty seemed competent and willing to manage the complaint initially but were hindered by travel time to Canberra’s northern suburbs. Attendance was typically delayed until after the fire had gone out. To help overcome the problem I was asked to provide video footage of the smoke as evidence, which I did. Soon after, my neighbour was issued with instruction on the correct use of a wood fire heater. The EPOs advised I should continue to contact Access Canberra whenever the smoke affected me, which eventually resulted in a warning notice being issued. A defined period was provided for any necessary repairs to be carried out. Continual use of the heater was permitted during this time and the EPA would not respond to reports concerning environmental degradation or risk to human health. I was informed that “The ACT Government is committed to fairness and equity so please allow seven days for this situation to improve. If the issue is still occurring after [date], please contact Access Canberra …” It meant my neighbour could continue producing thick plumes of toxic smoke until the date compliance was required. But it continued without wavering until the season changed.
In 2020 as winter approached my neighbour resumed his objectionable habit, but altered his daily routine by starting the wood heater on random days at around 5:30pm. Thick smoke billowed from the stack and typically continued for a couple of hours after dusk. I resumed contact with Access Canberra which revealed another constraint. The night vision camera had been damaged by leaking batteries, so the EPA could no longer collect evidence concerning smoke pollution after dusk. It also became apparent that procedures used to manage complaints about smoke from wood fire heaters re-commenced each winter. This meant it was improbable that regulatory action could progress beyond issuing warning notices each season. After raising concerns, permission was obtained to move directly to the compliance phase without repeating the education steps.
ACT EPA representatives visited my neighbour to inspect the heater and to discuss the correct operation at length. I understand they were shown clean firewood that I believe my neighbour had purchased from an approved merchant. I am advised the Officers told him to have the chimney cleaned and they provided details for the activity. I am also led to believe my neighbour was also informed of the range of penalties that may apply if further complaints were received and validated. The heater produced somewhat less pollution for a few days after each visit, but the heavy smoke steadily increased as the supply of purchased firewood, that bordered both our properties and clearly visible to EPA representatives, gradually diminished.
Use of the wood heater resumed in daylight hours on colder mid-winter days. A continuous column of thick smoke was produced for intervals from an hour to several hours each time before it went out. After receiving further complaints and new video footage, the ACT EPA progressed the compliance phase. At the end of July, I was asked to complete a Witness Statement to support the case for an infringement notice. Some requests that followed during the information gathering exercise were unexpected. The EPO requested detailed accounts of the conversations I had with Access Canberra and EPA personnel when I called about the excessive smoke (dates/times I contacted Access Canberra, who did I speak to each time, what was discussed, what was I told, what was I instructed to do). I had not kept journals of my contact over the years and my Access Canberra account online contained minimal detail. The EPO also requested descriptions with images of changes I made to minimise the smoke and odour entering my home, and receipts for the purchase and installation of a new split system heater.
The Officer established I had recently been admitted to hospital and his focus shifted to gathering information about my health. He intended to include my medical history and details about any current ailments in the Witness Statement. Further proposals included the scenario he suggested had led to my hospital admission, “… as a result of the wood fire emitting excessive smoke, this caused you to abandon your property as you experienced shortness of breath, or whatever symptom you experienced, to attend the Canberra Hospital.” The EPO insisted I have my specialist contact him to provide an Expert Witness Statement supporting the claims, “This could then be corroborated by your specialist in their expert witness statement.” He listed diseases he thought were relevant for inclusion in my statement, and prompted me further, “When was the condition diagnosed? Are you receiving treatment for it and if so what treatment? How many times have you been to hospital since diagnosis?” I was uncomfortable with the determined efforts to obtain my personal medical information and I did not expect it was needed to establish if the smoke contravened regulatory limits.
After serious consideration, I replied to the Officer with my decision not to include my medical history in the Witness Statement. The response clearly indicated annoyance with my decision.” It appears that you have some reluctance with proceeding with your complaint and the investigation, if you do not wish to finalise your statement, then unfortunately regulatory action will not be able to be taken by the EPA due to insufficient evidence being provided… Please advise me on how you would like to proceed.” I felt manipulated, but passed on the request for a statement to my specialist and provided his contact details to the Officer. The EPO advised that after he had spoken with my specialist, he would prepare a briefing for the Regulatory Advisory Committee.
At the end of September, I sought an update from the EPO. He advised he was in the process of compiling a brief seeking legal consent to proceed, and that I should continue to contact Access Canberra when affected by smoke. At the end of October, I asked if there had been any progress but the Officer was “still waiting on advice.” I asked the EPO what steps followed and if there was anything more, I could prepare in advance, but he responded with, “You will be advised in due course”. In a follow up email, the Officer added, “Access Canberra’s Regulatory framework aims to achieve voluntary compliance.” I felt the remark demonstrated a lack of interest in continuing. On 20 November the EPO wrote, “The EPA has received advice today and you will receive some formal correspondence about this matter in due course.”
After seeking a status update on 14 December, I was informed, “You will receive a letter outlining the next steps. Even in the event of a prosecution for an offence – fireplaces are permitted to be used in the ACT,” which suggested to me the exercise was considered pointless regardless of the outcome. The Officer forwarded a letter from the EPA Assistant Director on 16 December, stating, “… the Authority has concluded its investigation into matters and determined there is insufficient evidence to establish the offence of ‘causing environmental nuisance’”. I asked where the evidence fell short and he replied with an explanation of parameters that included, “… if interference caused or likely to be caused by – dust, fumes, light, noise, odour or smoke …” and continued with, “This has proven difficult to demonstrate… as I understand you have a heightened sensitivity to wood fire smoke.” There was no detail on the efforts made to demonstrate this or the difficulties encountered. My specialist confirmed there had been no communication with the EPA.
The reply became more confusing with references to the video I provided. Similar footage I provided earlier had met requirements for the EPA to issue warning notices and inspect the site, but additional criteria and a second offence (smoke causing ‘environmental harm’) had now been introduced. This was puzzling since the EPO had stated the investigation could only concern smoke causing ‘environmental nuisance’ due to the unique set of benchmarks used to demonstrate each offence. The message continued, “Whilst the evidence you provided demonstrated a considerable amount of smoke being emitted, unfortunately it did not depict the smoke leaving the property boundary line or a visible plume 10m or more from the stack”, which is bewildering when you try to imagine how this ‘considerable amount of smoke’ could have possibly been contained by my neighbour over the years. I felt the ACT EPA had become increasingly reluctant to resolve the matter throughout 2020, preferring to abandon the case. Rather than facilitate the process, I felt the Authority seemed to hinder activities by ignoring input available from other stakeholders and refusing to share processes, steps, and timeframes.
I contacted the Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment (OCSE) at the end of December. The OCSE commenced gathering information early in January 2021. After receiving feedback from Access Canberra and the EPA in April, the Commissioner distributed a preliminary report to the relevant ministers and the EPA. During the investigation, I compared my phone records with my Access Canberra account and found logs for only 11 of my 32 calls reporting incidents over 2019 and 2020. The EPO identified only 6 entries with negligible detail in the separate system used by the EPA.
The excessive smoke recommenced in May, starting at dusk most days and continuing for several hours before the fire went out. The smoke intensified through into June when I received a call from the EPA Chief Executive Officer, advising me of plans to investigate the matter after receiving the preliminary report from the Commissioner. The EPA visited my neighbour on 11 June with instruction on the correct use of a wood fire heater. I was informed that the process needed to recommence since the last recorded breach was more than 12 months prior. “All opportunities had been explored on more recent complaints”, which I assumed meant that none were found to breach regulation.
The smoke became problematic again the next day and continued over the June long weekend. I resumed contact with Access Canberra. During the weeks following an Officer could be seen standing in the middle of street holding a camera while he faced my neighbour’s house. A government vehicle was clearly visible when the Officer attended, parking adjacent to my neighbours’ entrance. The wood heater was not used while the Officer frequented the street. In a phone discussion with the Chief Executive Officer the reaction was, “… well, whatever it takes, problem solved, report any future issues to Access Canberra”.
Within the week my neighbour had recommenced production of heavy smoke for extended periods. The firewood that was stacked on our boundary fence had been consumed but bundles of sticks were still being collected from the nearby reserve. The problem persisted for the remaining season with some relief due only to the milder conditions. I hesitated about logging any further complaints with Access Canberra. Despite continual direction from the EPA to contact Access Canberra, I felt the lack of genuine concern was now clear in the correspondence I was receiving. I believed that insistence on using the same processes and engaging the same players could only deliver the exact same outcome produced over the past few years.
I logged into my Access Canberra account to view details of my most recent calls to find my entire history had disappeared. The technical support team was unable to restore the data but many months later it managed to extract some text manually from archives. A final report was received from the OCSE 11 October. The report presents recommendations for delivering outcomes of greater value to the environment and the community. The Commissioner distributed the report to the relevant ACT Government ministers and bureaucrats.
My neighbour resumed his habit on cooler days as winter set in during 2022. The fire was started at around 5:30pm and continued to burn a few hours after dusk. I reported an instance to Access Canberra on 9 October and a reference number was provided. Since attendance by an EPO was typically after the fire had gone out, and the basis of past complaints had been contested, I recorded another 40 minutes of the incessant smoke for me to exhibit if I were challenged. Soon after an Officer on duty called and asked, “what’s the story?”. I described the discharge from next door and he continued, “Is it worse than before?… because every time I have been out it’s complied”. The Officer asked if I would be willing to sign a statement and provide the video. He concluded, “I can come out if you really want but I don’t see much point because it will be dark by the time I get there.”
Two EPA officers arrived this time, as the fire went out. They suggested I call their senior officer in business hours and arrange to provide him the video. During the discussion I felt confusion still reigned over the benchmarks used to engage the EPA and evaluate wood heater emissions. I called the EPA office the next day and the senior officer advised that a few things had changed since receiving the Commissioners’ Final Report. He went on to say there would be an audit conducted on the firewood used next door, and I would be notified of the outcome. Also, a USB drive would be delivered for me to provide a copy of the video. There has been no further contact from the EPA. I imagine the matter will be closed without any further any action taken.
From my experience I believe the EPA fails to demonstrate genuine interest in protecting the environment and the well-being of the community. Despite the EPA stating, ‘there is a considerable amount of smoke being emitted’, the practice continues to menace the community with no sign of abating. The growing raft of EPA shortcomings all help provide predictable risk-free windows for those choosing to impose pollution on their neighbours. The probability of detection by the Authority is undeniably negligible and the likelihood of receiving an infringement even more remote.
I found the past couple of years dealing with the EPA unnecessarily taxing and ineffective. I believe the Authority’s officious culture and manipulative manner ensures procedures, objectives, and timeframes all remain a mystery to stakeholders. It has been astonishing to witness how routinely EPA compliance levels appear to be disregarded, and how the Authority fails to offer a professional service of value to the Canberra community. For those who wish to use a wood heater, a game of cat and mouse with our EPA is hardly a challenge, so the problem multiplies.
Every winter my neighbourhood in Canberra’s south is filled with smoke. I never knew the real danger of residential woodsmoke until my wife and I moved to Canberra in the early 90’s. Our home, like many homes built at the time, had a slow combustion wood heater. Not knowing the potential health risk, we spent the cold winters enjoying the warm comfort of a fire. That was until one winter, when our young daughter was rushed to hospital with a severe lung infection. She spent 10-days in an oxygen tent battling to breathe. When my wife and I finally got her home, our relief was short lived with our young son developing the same symptoms. We rushed back to the hospital, and he was immediately admitted for a similar lung infection. He later developed asthma. The doctor’s questioned us about our heating. We said we had a wood heater. They warned wood heaters can leak smoke and living with a wood heater was like living with a packet a day cigarette smoker. We were devastated. We thought we were doing the right thing, using the wood heater properly with the right wood, keeping it maintained and trying to reduce the amount of smoke emitting from the chimney. Instead, we felt we had unknowingly endangered the health of our two young children. Both children are now adults. Our son lives by the coast and because of his work he must maintain his fitness. He regularly jogs and cycles. While visiting us one winter he jogged around the block but soon gave up returning home with breathing problems. For the first time in many years his asthma had returned, triggered by the woodsmoke in our neighbourhood. Where I live, in Canberra’s south, we experience some of the worst air pollution in the whole city when people fire up their wood heaters. I have a weather station in my backyard and when the temperature drops, I regularly record hazardous levels of residential wood smoke pollution. The levels in my neighbourhood can be higher than those recorded by the official ACT Government air pollution monitor at nearby Monash. It can be so bad that if I leave a window open at night the smoke is drawn into my house and sets off the smoke alarms. My stations’ air pollution monitor was off the scale for about several days during the black summer bushfires. Then, governments warned us that smoke from the bushfires was dangerous to our health. What I want people to also understand is that smoke from a wood heater can be just as serious, it’s more frequent and hangs around our neighbourhoods longer during the cooler months of the year. I don’t have asthma, but I’m deeply concerned about the impact residential woodsmoke had on my kids and how it’s affecting many others. I have elderly friends who spend the cooler months of the year trapped at home, suffering in silence. They have a pre-existing health condition and if they venture outside with woodsmoke around more than likely they will end up in hospital. All we want to do is lead normal lives and walk outside to breathe clean, crisp Canberra air. If you have a woodfire heater, please consider making the switch to a cleaner and healthier heating alternative this winter. You could really make a difference.
A COSTLY PROBLEM
As a resident of Tuggeranong, I am concerned about the consequences of wood smoke exposure. According to ACT Government air quality data provided through the University of Tasmania’s Air Rater app, during winter evenings, wood heaters can pollute the air to the extent that Tuggeranong suffers higher levels of air pollution than Beijing. As we are aware that wood smoke has a particularly harmful effect on young children, we have purchased a number of air purifiers and installed better quality windows to help protect ourselves. This has cost in the tens of thousands of dollars – money that we would have preferred to save for our young children. How many other Canberrans have spent significant sums of money to limit their exposure to wood smoke that they would rather have saved or spent on something else due to the ACT Government’s failure to resolve this issue? I have also written to the ACT Minister for the Environment, Minister for Health and my MLAs to express my concerns. Of those who responded, all sympathised and acknowledged that wood heaters are a public health and environmental problem, but did not demonstrate any interest in addressing the problem beyond reiterating that there are (clearly ineffective) policies in place. Disappointingly, the ACT Minister for Health simply forwarded my email to the Minister for the Environment’s office, demonstrating a disinterest in tackling this public health issue. In 21st century Canberra, in the midst of a climate emergency, with all we know about the impact of wood smoke on our health, and especially that of young children, I consider this totally unacceptable.