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State boosts restrictions on wood sellers in battle against Fairbanks air pollution

Smoke billows from a home outside Fairbanks, Alaska, Dec. 6, 2016. (Ruth Fremson / The New York Times)

New state regulations to control wood smoke in the Fairbanks area are getting mixed reviews from woodcutters irked by the prospect of more record-keeping, but hopeful that the new paper trail will help stamp out a black market of illegal sellers.

"I hope (it means) people don't buy from the wood thieves anymore," said Oliver Rammersbach, owner of Alaska Timber Logging.

"But we got to figure this (paperwork) out. Maybe we have to do this on the laptop," he said as a steel saw screamed in the background while he cut wood on Thursday.

The Environmental Protection Agency on May 1 said it was bringing new restrictions to the notorious anti-regulation region to try to clean its dirty air. The federal agency said it would downgrade the region's status for continuing to violate pollution limits for fine-particle emissions, taking it from a "moderate" non-attainment area to "serious," a designation that carries more urgency.

The effective date for the new status will be June 9. Wood-burning, a key source of heat during winters that last half the year and where natural gas and heating oil is relatively expensive, is getting most of the attention as the Fairbanks North Star Borough and the state try to clear the air.

State environmental regulators said last week they will be putting two new rules in place, though the region is expected to see more restrictions in the future.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation will require the removal or replacement of old, inefficient wood-fired stoves before a property is sold, leased or transferred. The stoves can be replaced with ones that meet current emission standards, such as EPA-certified stoves.

Also, commercial wood sellers will be required to register with the state if they sell firewood in the regulated area that includes Fairbanks and North Pole. The companies will have to measure the moisture content of the wood they sell with handheld meters, and provide paper records to customers.

Wood with a moisture content above 20 percent is considered "wet" and causes increased smoke. The Fairbanks North Star Borough has already outlawed the burning of wet firewood as part of its long-running effort to bring the region into compliance with federal limits.

Fines can range between $100 and $500, depending on the circumstances. No citations for burning wet wood have been issued yet, said Glenn Miller, the borough's transportation director who also oversees air quality.

The borough is focused on education, with Mayor Karl Kassel personally calling people who might be on the path toward a citation, Miller said.

Even if residents find fault with that regulation and others, there is broad support for cleaner air in the region, with people concerned about health effects caused by fine-particle emissions that can penetrate deep into lungs. Those emissions, often about one-thirtieth the size of the width of a human hair, can contribute to respiratory and cardiovascular problems and exacerbate conditions such as asthma.

Many residents are also concerned violations could lead to reduced federal funding for the region.

But the responses to warning letters are not very conciliatory, Miller said.

Sometimes, the letter "just goes in to light their wood stove" and some people "wave to us with not all their fingers," he said.

But, "we do have a community that wants this problem cleaned up, and they look to the borough to do that," he said.

The state's new requirements will affect large-volume, commercial wood sellers, not supermarkets or convenience stories that sell small bundles of split, dry wood, officials said.

The commercial wood seller must check samples of freshly cut wood with a moisture meter, which can cost around $40. A good portion of the wood sellers from the area, about 10 companies, have already registered with the state under a voluntary program that has helped prepare them for what's coming.

Under the new rules, selling wet wood will still be legal. But the paperwork will give burners confidence in what they are buying, since they have the responsibility of burning dry wood, said Cindy Heil, an environmental program manager with the state.

In some cases, homeowners have complained they bought and burned wet wood after the seller claimed it was dry, Heil said.

Buyers and sellers have been "pointing fingers" at each other. But the paperwork will stop that by giving proof of moisture content, she said.

The registration program was designed after reports of wood theft, with people going onto private property and state and federal lands to cut wood they shouldn't, Heil said.

"We encourage people to only buy wood from certified wood sellers," Heil said.

Rammersbach, the wood seller who on Thursday was cutting and hauling wood he had harvested before winter, is registered in the state program.

He said some of his colleagues gripe that the rules are getting onerous. But he said he will sit down in his "office" — the living room in his home — to fill out the stacks of paperwork he recently acquired.

"The thing is, I support clean air," he said.

Duane Viers, a registered wood seller who owns Arctic Firewood, said Thursday he thought the extra "red tape" and work of splitting logs and recording wood moisture would cause firewood prices to rise.

The good thing is the new rules, once they're in effect, will further educate residents, reinforcing that burning wet wood isn't good for the air, he said.

But Viers, who drives across the frozen Tanana River in winter to harvest wood, said he wasn't sure the rules would do enough combat the problems.

People who illegally harvest wood will still do so, because enforcement is lacking, he said. And the people who must buy and burn cheaper wet wood will continue doing so — they have to stay warm.

"I don't know if that will change anything as far as the pollution goes," he said.

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