Protecting a Rush County Family from OWB Pollution


Around 8,000 homes in Indiana use outdoor wood boilers (OWBs) to heat their homes and water year round. An OWB looks like a small metal shed with a single smokestack that rises to about 10-12 feet above the ground. OWBs’ basic design causes fuel to burn incompletely, or smolder, resulting in thick smoke and potentially high air pollution emissions. Due to OWBs’ shorter smokestacks, smoke and fumes are often poorly dispersed, resulting in a high concentration of thick black smoke that can be hazardous to neighbors.  Wood smoke contains a number of organic compounds that are known carcinogens, and high exposure may raise the risk of chronic lung disease and lung cancer. Wood smoke also interferes with normal lung development in infants and children, and increases the risk of asthma and respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia.

Operating year round, a single OWB can emit 1.55 tons of matter such as dust and soot, which is around the same amount as 50 diesel trucks. Even more alarming, OWBs are only supposed to be powered by dry wood, but some users burn treated lumber, painted wood, cardboard, and trash, which can be especially dangerous to the health of neighbors.

Bowling2Like many other rural Hoosiers, Gary and Mable Bowling are suffering from the operation of their neighbors’ OWB.  The Bowlings have lived at their home outside Rushville, Indiana, for nearly twenty years.  In 2010, their neighbors installed an OWB 60 feet from the Bowlings’ home.  The OWB is an older model designed for a much larger house, and does not have an emission control device.  As a result, whatever is burned in the OWB smolders for hours and releases extensive amounts of thick, acrid smoke that regularly blows on the Bowlings’ property.

The smoke is so thick and sharp that it seeps through the walls of the Bowlings’ house like a sponge.  This intrusion of hazardous smoke has severely diminished the Bowlings’ quality of life and the continuous exposure is worsening Mable Bowling’s asthma and respiratory problems.  Even the Bowlings’ children and grandchildren limit their visits because the smoke is so powerful and nauseating that it makes them sick in less than an hour.

Bowling3Unfortunately, Indiana’s regulation of OWBs is astonishingly lax. The current rule imposes burning seasons and prohibits burning certain materials.  Also, the federal government’s new OWB rule only pertains to new OWBs, not older models like the one used by the Bowlings’ neighbor.  As a result, there are large gaps in environmental policy that severely affect Hoosiers like the Bowlings all over Indiana. To address this injustice, HEC filed a lawsuit in Rush County Court with the aim of obtaining a court order to stop the Bowlings’ neighbors from using their OWB.

February 29, 2016 update: Legal Victory for the Bowlings!

Because litigation can take many years, HEC asked the trial court to issue a preliminary injunction to prevent the Bowlings’ neighbors from using their OWB during the pendency of the case. After the trial court wrongly denied HEC’s request, we appealed to the Indiana Court of Appeals which reversed the trial court and ordered it to issue the preliminary injunction. The opinion is available here.

To learn more about the case, contact our Senior Staff Attorney Kim Ferraro.

To support HEC’s efforts to help Hoosiers suffering from OWBs, please go to our donate page.