Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford, had to halt an exchange over a ban on outdoor wood furnaces between the president of Environment and Human Health, Inc. and Rep. Bryan Hurlburt, D-Tolland, during a public hearing before the legislature’s Environment Committee Monday.

Nancy Alderman, EHHI’s president, was testifying in support of a bill that would ban outdoor wood furnaces for half the year and add woodsmoke to the state’s list of public health nuisances.

Hurlburt, vice-chair of the committee, had already pressed Alderman on whether more regulation was really needed. But when Hurlburt pointed out the advantages to wood as an energy source, Alderman interrupted: “We are not going to agree. The science is behind us.”

She said she would not take up anymore of the committee’s time because “there is no way we are going to be able to change your mind.”

Alderman apologized repeatedly after Roy, the committee’s co-chair, called her attention to the fact that she had interrupted Hurlburt.

In her testimony, she said that current law, which gives authority to local health directors to define public health nuisances, is too vague and is not enough to protect people.

“This lack of specification means that some local health directors will enforce woodsmoke issues under the present broad ‘nuisance’ provisions of the health code while many other local health directors will claim they do not have jurisdiction.” Alderman said.

But the Connecticut Association of Directors of Health, which represents local health directors, said that adding woodsmoke to the list of public health nuisances is itself too vague.

Rick Matheny, the group’s president and health director for the Farmington Valley Health District said the definition of woodsmoke is “so vague that it potentially places a local director of health in an untenable position.”

The local health directors believe that all woodsmoke is potentially harmful but, said Matheny, “If it is not the intent of the legislature to outlaw all woodsmoke, then who will make the judgment that a particular exposure, in fact, endangers the health of persons who live in the vicinity of the source of the smoke—and, more importantly, upon what basis?”

EHHI is concerned with woodsmoke from outdoor wood furnaces, but while the bill defines those, it does not define woodsmoke. An outdoor wood furnace or boiler burns wood to heat water which can then be used for home heating.

The bill would not ban fire pits, wood-fired barbecues, chimineas or indoor wood stoves. EHHI says that woodsmoke from outdoor wood furnaces is unique because the wood does not burn hot enough to burn completely. Outdoor wood furnaces look like small sheds with short smoke stacks.

Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chair of the committee, told Alderman that woodsmoke needs to be better defined in the bill. “I think the first part of this bill needs to work because it could be ruled unconstitutional for vagueness.”

According to Alderman, plumes of smoke from outdoor wood furnaces can travel up to half a mile and will stay close to the ground because unburned particulates make the smoke heavy whereas chimney smoke rises into the atmosphere and dissipates. “Some people raise stacks but that doesn’t seem to help,” Alderman said in an interview last week.

Alderman would like to see the legislature adopt a complete ban of outdoor wood furnaces. Currently the bill would only ban the furnaces for six months from April 15 to Oct. 15.

She said the bill does not go far enough to protect the public. “It simply asks people not to use wood furnaces in the heat of the summer.”

“Some people were burning wood in the summer just to heat their water,” said Alderman. “In 90 degree weather, some were still emitting woodsmoke.”

Alderman said that woodsmoke contains carbon monoxide, carcinogens and other pollutants and exposure “is associated with a diverse range of harmful health effects, including asthmatic sensitivity, lung illnesses and cancer.”

EHHI released a study today as part of their testimony which found that woodsmoke is finding its way into neighboring homes.

Despite the health risks, EHHI supports the bill’s exemption for farmers. But Alderman asked the committee to include a provision for a 1,000-foot setback from property lines for new units. Currently, there is a 200-foot setback. Alderman said that she supports this exemption because “farmers have made their case that in these tough economic times the furnaces help reduce costs.”

However, state farm bureaus oppose the bill entirely. Steve Reviczky, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association said his group “strongly supports use of alternative fuels, including the burning of wood” to heat buildings and provide hot water.

He said that while the state Department of Environmental Protection may have received a large number of complaints, “a good number of complaints focus on a few applications and the DEP has responded to those.”

DEP Commissioner Amey Marrella said in her written testimony to the committee that since 2005 her department has received 750 complaints regarding outdoor wood furnaces. But she said that when outdoor wood furnaces are set up in accordance with the law and burn only untreated wood, the appliances “can be an important source of heat energy for agriculture and other rural needs.”

Marrella noted that compliance can be costly for many outdoor wood furnace owners to the point that they may have to stop using them.  But in the end she pointed to health concerns and called for more stringent regulations to bring Connecticut in line with neighboring states.

Currently nine Connecticut towns ban wood furnaces: Granby, Tolland, Hebron, Woodbridge, South Windsor, Portland, Ridgefield, Norfolk and Haddam.

A similar bill died last year in committee.