Tag Archives: neighborhood dispute

Dealing with the ACT Environmental Protection Authority: Part 1

Who you gonna call?  Smoke busters!..       Yeah as if.

So approaching the neighbour directly did not work. the next step is contacting  the Government.

The only agency who will even pretend to listen to your plight is the ACT Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), which is a part of the ACT Department of the Environment, Climate Change, Energy and Water.

They will assist you in the following ways;

  •   Come out and look at the smoking chimney.
  •   Send the neighbour a pamphlet on how to correctly operate a wood heater.
  •   Potentially visit the neighbour in person to view their set up and  educate them on how to correctly operate a wood heater.
  •   Patiently listen to you vent your frustration at the whole issue.

That’s pretty much it.

Unless the neighbour has an uncertified heater, or you can prove the neighbour is burning garbage (good luck with that), they won’t and in fact can’t do anything more. Regardless of how much smoke is coming out of that chimney. No fines, no warnings, nothing that will actually stop the smoke. They might do something if the smoke is black, but you can’t see that what colour smoke is at night anyway.

That’s the EPA and their role in a nutshell, but let’s look at it more closely to get an idea of what is really going on.

The EPA website contains all the official advice as to how one should operate a wood heater in order to minimise smoke emissions. Anyone in Canberra who is interested in the wood smoke issue should be familiar with it.

http://www.environment.act.gov.au/environment2/residential_environment_protection_issues/wood_heaters_and_their_emissions/soild_fuel_heaters

The content there is mostly the same sort of ‘common sense’ information you will see around the Internet. The basic theme is ‘wood heating is essentially okay, and if you do it properly it shouldn’t bother anyone’. It sounds really good in that theoretical perfect world that Government policy makers seem to live in. I wish I lived there too, I bet it’s much less smoky in the winter there.

At the bottom of the page we see the section about complaints.

Complaints
Smoking chimneys can be annoying. (
just annoying, how about a public health
risk? –  ed) However, before making a complaint check that the guidelines
are being breached, i.e. that the chimney is not just smoking temporarily
because the fire has just been lit or wood has just been added to the fire.

If the guidelines are being breached, it is best, where possible, to
discuss the problem with the operator of the heater. Experience has shown
that, in most cases, this enables the problem to be resolved amicably.

However, where this approach is unsuccessful or impractical you should
contact us. You can also contact us if you have any enquiries on the
operation of solid fuel heaters.

They are telling you to do what you should have already done, that is to
contact the neighbour directly and try to resolve the issue with them. But
that didn’t work out so well, which is why you are now looking at the EPA
website.

The next thing to pay attention to is,

Guidelines for Acceptable Smoke Emissions
The chimney may smoke for up to 30 minutes when first lit and up to 20
minutes on refuelling. At other times there should be little or no smoke
from a properly operated solid fuel heater.

I have to be brutally frank here. These ‘guidelines’ are complete rubbish. Whoever devised them was either great at writing deliberately pointless and misleading rules, or just plain stupid. Bear in mind though that these are simply ‘guidelines’ and not rules.  They are the sort of ‘guidelines’ that don’t actually mean very much when it comes to real world application. The extremely non-robust wording of these ‘guidelines’ in fact renders them entirely useless.

First of all, the guidelines do not even start to take into account the location of a chimney. What if the chimney is only 5 metres away from, and at a lower elevation than your bedroom window? There are plenty of set ups like that around, and ANY amount of smoke is unacceptable in those conditions. (We’ll talk more about the location of chimneys in another post, as it’s a long discussion in itself.)

Secondly, it doesn’t say how much smoke can be emitted for those 20 to 30 minutes. A light trickle or a thick heavy cloud? It makes no distinction.
Should the smoke be white, grey, black or green? It doesn’t say.

And last but not least, if they are including a provision for the chimney to be allowed to smoke for a further 20 minutes every time it’s reloaded then whole thing becomes redundant. Even if you have video evidence of the chimney smoking uninterrupted for hours at a time on a daily basis, it means absolutely nothing.  All the operator need do is merely claim that they are reloading the heater every 20 minutes. You can’t prove they aren’t. This gives them a free pass to emit as much smoke as they want, and renders the entire concept of having guidelines for acceptable smoke emissions completely redundant.

Why should anyone bother even trying to operate a wood heater according to
these rules when they are meaningless? To help a neighbour from the kindness of their heart…?   Not often in Canberra I’m afraid.

What does acceptable smoke emissions even mean anyway? Acceptable to  whom exactly, the operator of the wood heater? They’re too busy being inside enjoying the warmth, they couldn’t care less about what happens to the smoke.

These guidelines offer absolutely nothing whatsoever to the unfortunate souls on the receiving end of unwanted chimney smoke. As far as I’m concerned there is no acceptable amount of smoke that should be entering my home as a result of
my neighbour’s preferred method of heating. What is the difference between allowing smoke, a waste product, to cross your neighbour’s property line, and dumping the contents of your garbage bin over their fence? Ethically there is no difference, but unfortunately the litter act only refers to solid and liquid waste.  So the law refuses to even recognise your situation.

Bummer.

We’ll come back to that later though, as there is more to the story than what you see on the surface of the EPA website.

Next let’s assume that you are going down the path of getting the EPA involved. What can you expect to occur?

To be continued in part 2.

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Problems with a neighbour’s chimney smoke? The first step towards resolution.

When suffering unwanted wood smoke from a neighbour’s wood heater, absolutely the first thing one should do is to approach the neighbour and politely let them know about the issue. It doesn’t have to be face to face, by all means do that if you can, but otherwise a short letter should suffice.  Often they may not even be aware that what they are doing is causing a problem for anyone else. That’s understandable, going outside to check how much the flue is smoking and where the smoke is going is probably not high on the list of things to do after having just fired up the heater for the night.

Having good relations with your neighbour is of the utmost importance. You all have to live in the same area so it’s in everyone’s best interests to get along.

Try to help them help you. There’s a fair chance that they may not know how to properly operate a wood heater. Unlike switching on an electric heater operating a wood heater is actually a learned skill, which requires attention and dedication to learn properly. There is also a considerable amount of maintenance required to ensure the heater runs cleanly and correctly, and we all know how easily people can lapse into lazy habits.

A wealth of information is available on line designed specifically to educate the owners of wood heaters how to best operate them in the manner that will produce the least amount of smoke, and get the best results for them in terms of heating efficiency. Most local governments should have education material available which you can pass on to your neighbour.

This link is quite helpful for people in Canberra, even if the content is somewhat flimsy.

http://www.environment.act.gov.au/environment2/residential_environment_protection_issues/wood_heaters_and_their_emissions/soild_fuel_heaters

Less smoke for you, and more heat for them. Everybody wins!

Basically you need to try to do everything and anything you can, within reason of course, to help them either reduce the amount of smoke being produced or move to a cleaner form of home heating. It’s your health and enjoyment of your own home that is at stake here. You must be pro active, the problem will not go away by itself.

So hopefully you were are able to contact your neighbours, and they turned out to be reasonable people who are willing to work with you to try and resolve the problem in a manner that is mutually beneficial to both parties.

That’s the best case scenario.

On the other hand though, there is also a very good chance that even continued communication with your neighbour will fail to have any positive effect.

It’s quite possible that upon being informed of the issue your neighbours will be completely unsympathetic to your plight. They may ignore you all together and do exactly nothing to help you.

As mentioned before, correctly operating a wood heater is a big task to take on. It’s unfortunate to think so, but as straight forward as the instructions may seem the simple fact is that many owners of wood heaters are just not capable of running them properly and never will be. Think of the level of proficiency most people display when driving their cars for example…

Even worse they may actually take offence to your questioning their activities and deliberately attempt to make the situation even more unpleasant for you. Their opinion may be something along the lines of, ‘Well I’ve been doing it this way for the last thirty years and no one has complained before, why don’t you go away and mind your own business!!!’.

Reports floating about the Internet suggest such vengeful responses as adjusting flue caps to direct even more smoke towards your house. Even such despicable behaviour as deliberately burning garbage or wet wood to inundate you with even dirtier, foul smelling smoke.

You could also be stuck in the most unfortunate situation where you neighbour’s chimney is in an utterly inappropriate position, such that any use of their wood heater whatsoever will impact you directly. Even if they are following the rules to the letter.

I can understand that people have a strong emotional attachment to their fire place, it produces comforting warmth that helps them through the long cold winter.  It sounds like a great luxury, and being cold is not much fun. So be prepared to accept that their relationship with the fire means more to them than your health. Their smoke may be making you very sick, but they don’t really care about that much at all.

So when diplomacy fails, and only then, it becomes necessary to involve a third party.

This should really be a last resort, as the neighbour will definitely become even more annoyed with you then, and the third party will in all likely hood achieve little or nothing towards a proper solution to your wood smoke problems.

Grim news, but unfortunately that’s how it will likely play out. Don’t be deterred though. It will be a long painful process to get any meaningful official assistance with this, but you absolutely have every right to complain. The operators of the wood heater are denying you the right to the quiet enjoyment of your property, and you have to fight that. They may have the right to burn wood for heat, but their rights to burn wood end at your property line. Your property is yours, and they have no to engage in activities which affect your life and health.

Don’t give them an inch. Call and complain every single time you can smell smoke in your house or see it in your yard. Nothing will come of it the first time, but keep at it. Persistence is the only way you will get anywhere when it comes to complaining to the government. Write letters to Ministers, Local Members, etc. Do not stop until someone recognises your plight.

You have the right to health and clean air in your own home. Do not let them take that from you.