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State offers regulations to scrub sooty Fairbanks air -- and avoid harsh penalties

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News
Frigid below-zero temperatures contribute to regular winter inversions that trap pollution close to the ground in Fairbanks. With a deadline from the EPA looming, and winter's temperature inversions on the way, Alaska on Friday began the process of making changes to the Fairbanks North Star Borough's air quality regulations. Hugh Rose photo

The state of Alaska is proposing new regulations aimed at cleaning the often sooty air in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. But whether the regulations, if implemented, will actually change anything, remains an open question.

On Friday morning, the state rolled out its proposed rules, part of an ongoing effort to clean up unhealthy air in the areas around Fairbanks, the state's second largest city. Over the last few years, the area has been plagued with heavily polluted air, which at times is some of the worst in the nation.

During the winter, strong temperature inversions can trap heavily polluted air in the region’s low-lying areas. That pollution -- consisting largely of tiny particulate matter -- is considered a serious health risk, possibly contributing to lung and to heart disease as well as strokes. Up to 70 percent of the pollution, according to some estimates, comes from wood smoke. With soaring energy prices gripping the region, residents are turning to wood as the cheapest source of fuel to heat their homes.

Because of the pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency has designated parts of the Fairbanks North Star Borough as out of compliance with the Clean Air Act. Consequently, the state must provide a plan showing how it will fix the problem -- or the region will face harsh federal restrictions.

The regulations -- including a long, six-month comment period -- are the first step toward delivering such a plan. The proposed regulations include:

• Further restricting the winter-long open burn ban.

• Clarifying a regulation that would allow the department to prohibit the use of wood-fired heating devices after an air episode has been declared.

• Clarifying the types of solid fuels that can burned.

• Establishing particulate emission limits for new wood-fired devices.

But the most controversial part of the proposed regulations involves who has the authority to declare air-quality episodes, issue advisories and take action. The new code says both the DEC and “a local air quality control program” would have that power.

In Alaska, only two local governments have such authority: the Municipality of Anchorage and the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

In Fairbanks, the matter is tricky. Last year, residents voted to strip the borough of its ability to enforce air quality. Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, pushed strongly for that measure, and strongly criticized the state Friday for trying to circumvent its authority.

“The state should have come to us in the first place to try to sort this out” she said from North Pole Friday. “... Now we’re going to do everything we can to fight this.”

But whether state regulations will actually supersede the borough ordinance is unclear. State Division of Air Quality Director Alice Edwards said that was a legal question she couldn't answer, but that the state is “not trying to circumvent what happened through the borough initiative process.”

Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins emphasized that because of the ordinance, the borough will not enforce any air-quality standards. 

Edwards said what DEC wanted to do was allow both the borough and state to issue air advisories. Local entities are monitoring the air, she said, and it makes sense for them to issue advisories.

But Wilson disagrees that the proposed regulation offers that flexibility. For residents of the borough, flexibility comes down to burning either solid fuel or oil, she said.

“We're burning wood and coal because at this time, the cost of heating oil keeps rising,” she said. “It's what our homeowners can afford to do.”

That's a concern Hopkins understands. He said incentives -- not enforcement -- are the best way to entice residents to burn cleaner fuels.

“Our community responds to incentives a lot heck of a better,” he said.

The state plans to hold several open-house meetings to address the regulations in the coming months. Public comment on the proposed regulations will be accepted through Jan. 23. More information is available on the state's website.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @suzannacaldwell

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