Holladay resident Nick Smyrniotopoulos has a problem. One of his neighbors has repeatedly reported him for burning trash in violation of state and county air-quality policies — even calling the police and fire department out to his house.
But, Smyrniotopoulos says, he’s innocent.
Authorities tried to step up no-burn enforcement on the Wasatch Front this winter, but they concede it can be difficult to determine who has broken the rules. They still encourage Utahns to report violations — even though only a fraction of complaints result in citations.
“That’s a challenge that we face sometimes,” said Nicholas Rupp, a spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department.
“People will complain that there is burning in my neighborhood, but … we can’t do anything if it’s not clear where the smoke is coming from,” Rupp said. “We rely on neighbors to identify exactly which house it is. And I look at my neighborhood sometimes and say, ‘There is some smoke over there, but I have no idea what house.’ ”
Burning wood or other solid fuels such as coal or charcoal is banned by the state Division of Air Quality when the weather forecast indicates stagnant air could trap smoke and other pollutants over the Wasatch Front’s urban valleys.
Short of a crackdown
This past winter, the Salt Lake County Health Department received 78 complaints of residents burning wood on no-burn days. That was a notable jump from the previous year, when the department received 47 complaints.
Rupp attributed the rise to a campaign by the county health department and state Division of Air Quality (DAQ) to get more Wasatch Front residents to report when they smell or see smoke. Despite the increase in complaints, Rupp said health officials have yet to issue a citation for wood-burning violations.
DAQ, meanwhile, took in 157 reports last winter and issued 10 citations, compared with 12 the previous year, according to Jared James, an environmental scientist with the agency.
Those low numbers, Rupp said, are at least partially explained by difficulties in determining whether a violation has happened when someone gets turned in by a neighbor. The health department tries to dispatch investigators within three days of receiving a complaint, but they work during the day, and people typically use their fireplaces in the evenings.
“We get complaints all the time, about things we can’t verify,” Rupp said.
Even though verifying reports often proves problematic, James added, it’s still the preferred method of state regulators to find and educate violators, given that an outright ban on wood burning is prohibited by state law.
“We don’t have the manpower to cover the entire Wasatch Front,” James said.
Given the difficulty, Rupp said, investigators often erred on the side of distributing educational materials to alleged offenders as opposed to writing them a ticket, “regardless of what we see.”
“We don’t issue penalties,” he said, “unless inspectors confirm that the prohibited behavior is happening.”
So far, Rupp said, the strategy seems to be working — they’ve never had to return to a previously reported address.
Rupp confirmed the health department got a complaint about foul-smelling smoke at Smyrniotopoulos’ address Wednesday afternoon, and he said it will send someone to talk to the occupants. Though enforcement of the state’s wood burning ban ends March 1, he said the health department still wanted to investigate the smell, to make sure no one is burning plastics or electronics, which is prohibited year-round.
Source of the smell?
That will be the fourth agency to approach Smyrniotopoulos about the smoke allegedly emanating from his residence. He said he’s received notices or visits from Holladay, the police and, most recently, the fire department, all complaining he was burning trash and asking him to stop.
None of them cited him, however.
The string of reports led Smyrniotopoulos and his wife to put up a sign in their front lawn, urging whoever was reporting them to knock it off.
Doug Brewer, code enforcement officer for Holladay, confirmed that someone had complained repeatedly about strange-smelling smoke coming from Smyrniotopoulos’ address. The initial complaint, he said, involved a different house, later determined not to be the source.
When the complainant was told the first address wasn’t the source, Brewer said, that person filed a subsequent complaint about Smyrniotopoulos’ house. Officials sent him a notice. When the smell persisted, Brewer said, officials suggested the complainant call the police instead.
Throughout, Smyrniotopoulos remains adamant he has never burned trash at his house. He does use his fireplace on a regular basis, but not without checking the state’s website to make sure it’s legal to burn before he lights a fire.
He said he also burns an artificial fire log to lower emissions from the fireplace. James, the DAQ scientist, confirmed the fire logs — available in area stores under such brand names as Duraflame, Java-log and Enviro-Log — do burn more cleanly and efficiently than natural logs.
But, he said, they also emit an odd odor, which James said could explain why Smyrniotopoulos keeps getting turned in.