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Tempers boil over boiler

Smoke from this wood burning boiler is at the center of a dispute between two Knife River neighbors. Photo: Tammy Francois

Bill DeRoche says he has spent far too much time indoors since September. That's when his neighbors installed an outdoor wood-burning boiler that he says has caused his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease symptoms to grow worse, irritating a smoke allergy and resulting in severe headaches.

A machine with a HEPA filter whirrs in one corner of his home and he has a nebulizer and several inhalers on the kitchen table that overlooks his neighbors' yard where grey smoke issues from the boiler's chimney.

The Knife River resident estimates that the boiler is about 40 feet from his door; a short journey for the smoke and particulates to find their way into his home.

"When the wind comes from the south, which is often, my home is covered with smoke. The smoke is also taken into my home by the cold air intake for my furnace," he said. "I have to wear a breather mask to walk anywhere on my property."

Liz Pearce, who lives in the house next door with her husband and three young sons, said that the boiler was installed to save money when her husband was laid off. She said that they have lengthened the smoke stack and added insulation to address DeRoche's concerns, and up until recently, the relationship between the neighbors had been amicable.

"We've been very blessed by Bill," she said, noting that DeRoche gave the family a lawnmower and gifts after their one-year old son was born last year. They have reciprocated with baked goods, soup and by praying for DeRoche daily, she said.

Also, said Pearce, DeRoche's shed is fully on her family's property -- not an issue until recently, when she said he began painting messages on the shed that she finds offensive and intimidating.

"It's turned into aggressive behavior. As soon as he (painted the messages) I think he went below the belt. That's bullying and harassment," she said. She called law enforcement about the messages, but was told that DeRoche was acting within his freedom of speech rights.

DeRoche acknowledges painting provocative messages and that his relationship with his neighbors has broken down due to the disagreement over the boiler. He says his frustration has driven him to begin calling and mailing county officials to see what can be done to address the problem of the smoke.

Michelle Backes-Fogelberg, public health Supervisor for Lake County, received some of that correspondence and visited his home last month. She took photographs of the smoke and called the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for information. She said she also brought DeRoche a supply of masks to help filter the air he breathes, but that there is little else she can do at this point, since no ordinances against the use of outdoor wood-burning boilers exist for areas outside of the cities in Lake County. Two Harbors does have one on its books, but Knife River is without its own government, so it falls under county jurisdiction.

"It's frustrating for all of us," Backes-Fogelberg said. "Without the ordinance, our hands are tied. To date, no such ordinance has been proposed.

Lake County Attorney Laura Auron said she too has been researching the issue, and like Backes-Fogelberg, has found no county ordinances addressing the matter.

"Almost all of (the ordinances) are for cities, as opposed to counties," Auron said, adding the passing of a new ordinance takes time.

"It's a little bit of a lengthy process," Auron said. In the meantime, she said her staff, too, has contacted the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for input. They've discovered that there has been some debate about possible public health risks linked to the use of wood-burning boilers.

The issue has also been brought to the attention of the Lake County Board of Commissioners. DeRoche said that Commissioner Rich Sve has been to his home, too.

"The county recently received a number of letters from Mr. DeRoche related to his neighbors' boiler. At this time we are looking into the complaint and possible solutions. We have the county attorney, planning and zoning administrator and our public health supervisor investigating the issue," Sve said.

"We sympathize with Mr. DeRoche's situation and hope that a solution may be found to alleviate his discomfort."

DeRoche said that while officials have been sympathetic, their sympathy is not what he needs.

"I must wait patiently ... so that government can move slowly," he said.

On Monday, DeRoche said he called 911 for help because he couldn't breathe.

"Last night, I couldn't get up from my chair to get to my meds," he said, adding that what he misses most is being able to go make a cup of tea and go out on his deck in the evening.

"I like to go out and look at the night sky and I haven't been able to do that all winter. Some people say that it makes them feel insignificant, but it fills me with great joy."