Alaska News

EPA sets stricter standards to control Fairbanks air pollution

The Trump Administration said on Monday it will slap new restrictions on the Fairbanks region for its dirty air, with the state required to develop a plan to replace old wood stoves and other equipment with more efficient technology.

The decision by the Environmental Protection Agency, coming under administrator Scott Pruitt, downgrades Fairbanks' status for continuing to violate pollution limits for fine-particle emissions. The agency is boosting the region's "non-attainment" designation from moderate to serious.

A "serious" designation means, for example, that the state must create a new plan by year-end that will seek to employ "the best" technology, such as new, EPA-certified wood stoves that produce less smoke than older stoves, said Suzanne Skadowski, a regional spokeswoman from the EPA in Seattle.

The designation means the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and Fairbanks North Star Borough, working together on the plan, must review some 160 "best practices" that have been put in place elsewhere around the country, said borough Mayor Karl Kassel.

The groups will have to implement the measures or explain why they can't be done, he said. Besides tackling the biggest problem — wood stove emissions — other options could include installing new emissions-reducing equipment at power plants. That option could be costly, but there's no easy way forward, he said.

He said the borough recognizes the air has to be cleaned. "It's a high priority for us to do that," he said.

The particles the agency is targeting are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter — about 1/30th the size of a human hair — and can penetrate deep into lungs, contributing to respiratory and cardiovascular problems and exacerbating conditions such as asthma.

Fairbanks hasn't met the EPA limit in recent years, Skadowski said. The EPA stressed on Monday that it will continue working with the borough and the state to reduce the air pollution to safer levels, despite the natural obstacles in the region.

One problem is the "need for heat is greatest when burning wood is most likely to be harmful to public health during severe cold-air inversions," the agency said in a statement released by Skadowski.

In addition to requiring the newest and best stoves, using dry firewood is also important. Damp wood produces more smoke, she said.

The EPA recently selected Fairbanks to receive $2.5 million to help replace old stoves with new ones.

Not meeting the standard brings with it the threat of reduced funding from the federal government. But reduced funding would not happen until much later, if at all, Skadowski said.

The state and borough have until the end of 2019 to show the standard can be met. Skadowski said that if it can't, the Clean Air Act offers flexibility allowing extensions.

"Once an area is in serious non-attainment, they are clearly struggling," she said. That's when it becomes clear there is no easy solution, she added.

The state and borough have already been working on the new plan for months, knowing that the stricter designation was expected, Kassel said.

The EPA recognizes that Fairbanks is the toughest place it has encountered as it combats fine-particle pollution, he said. It has the coldest conditions, the least air movement and the highest percent of wood burners.

"When you're the worst in every category, it makes the problem just huge," Kassel said.

"We'll get to clean air eventually," he said. "I wouldn't put a date on it, but we'll keep working on it until we get there."