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Polluters fouling air breathed by young Fairbanks schoolchildren cited

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News
alaskanent / flickr

Advocates for cleaning Fairbanks air got a break last week, when the state filed its first lawsuit against a perennial polluter.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation filed a civil suit against the owners of two wood boilers in a West Fairbanks neighborhood, claiming they’re are a public nuisance. The state is asking the court to impose an injunction that would prohibit defendants Andrew and Gloria Straughn from operating the wood boilers.

Facing EPA sanctions

It's the first official step the state has taken to try to curb some of the Fairbanks North Star Borough's worst polluters. Air quality in Fairbanks has worsened in recent years due to extreme cold, strong atmospheric inversions and an increase in wood burning for heat, thanks to high heating oil prices. The Environmental Protection Agency has designated the borough as an area that consistently violates the standards set by the federal Clean Air Act. The borough must improve its air quality by 2014 or face harsh restrictions from the federal government.

But the borough finds itself stuck on how to proceed. In November, voters passed an initiative to strip the borough of any power to regulate air quality. Despite extensive monitoring and programs that offer financial assistance to residents who make their wood-burning devices more efficient, the borough has no authority to stop the worst polluters.

Supporters of the initiative, including State Rep. Tammie Wilson, a North Pole Republican, have said the state already has the authority the regulate air quality, and there is no reason to duplicate efforts.

Next to elementary school

The two boilers cited in the complaint are directly across the street from Woodriver Elementary School. Air quality around the school has been described as some of the worst in the district.

According to court filings, since the boilers were installed in late 2008, more than 200 complaints have been filed by 40 different people living in the neighborhood. The complaint notes that several people exposed to smoke from the two wood boilers -- including neighbors, staff and Woodriver students -- have experienced respiratory problems and asthma since the fall of 2008.

Dawn Brashear is among them. A counselor and PTA member at Woodriver, Brashear said she's battled several respiratory infections since the burners were installed in 2008. She said the smoke can be so bad that there's a noticeable haze in the school hallway, something that happens two or three times a week during winter.

After years of asking for help in cleaning up the boilers, the school appealed with greater urgency this winter. Each time the school sent out an air-quality complaint, it was dispatched on behalf of the 550 staff and students, Brashear said.

Brashear was happy to see the state finally take action.

'Why a delay?'

“I'm excited this is happening, but I'm still scratching my head why this didn't happen years ago,” Brashear said. “Why was there a delay? It seems like a straightforward law. The borough showed us all the charts, showed us all this unhealthy air. So what was the hold up?”

A call to Cameron Leonard, a senior assistant attorney general for Alaska, was not immediately returned Wednesday. Under public nuisance regulations, the Straughns could face monetary penalties between $500 and $100,000 and a maximum of $10,000 per day after the violation.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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