PALMER — Matanuska-Susitna Borough officials trying to avoid federal intervention are gearing up a public-education campaign to combat Butte's winter air-pollution problem.
The community of more than 3,000 people tucked up against the Chugach Mountains near Palmer has for the last two winters violated federal Clean Air Act standards for tiny particulates created by burning wood.
Butte is sometimes beset by wind-whipped glacial dust rising from the Matanuska or Knik rivers. But these particulates are different: smaller and created by wood combustion, tiny particles measured as "PM2.5" that can lodge in lungs and cause breathing and heart problems.
Now the air-quality season, those frigid days that trap a haze of wood smoke under the invisible lid of an inversion layer, is just around the corner. And wood remains the cheapest way to stay warm.
If Butte violates the PM2.5 standards again this winter, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could step in to force compliance. Anything from new regulations to tens of millions in lost federal highway dollars are at stake if Mat-Su doesn't get its air pollution under control, officials here say.
That's why the borough is launching a public-education campaign funded with $50,000 from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to inform residents about how to voluntarily limit air pollution — before EPA regulations come down as they have in the Fairbanks area.
"We don't want to go there," said Frankie Barker, an environmental planner with the borough who's working with the state on the campaign.
Mat-Su officials say their main message is that residents should burn dry, seasoned wood in their stoves during alert periods when weather conditions can lead to inversions. They hand out brochures titled, "Split, Stack, Store and Save!" Burn Wood Wisely" that encourage burning wood dried to 20 percent or less moisture content. How to tell? Dry logs sound hollow knocked together, feel lighter and often have visible cracks.
Wet wood doesn't burn as well as dry, Barker said. Still, wood vendors she's talked to say they can't keep up with the demand.
"As soon as they cut it, they can sell it," she said. "Wet wood … doesn't heat well. But if you're stretched thin for purchasing it, you're not going to buy some this winter and use it next winter."
Murray Bond, co-owner of Wasilla-based wood supplier Bond Brothers Logging, estimated that about two-thirds of his wood customers "think far enough ahead" to have seasoned wood to burn.
Vendors can also struggle to keep a large supply of dry wood on hand, according to borough resource manager Ray Nix.
"When the supply is low and the demand is high … the temps are low, the problem is it doesn't get to sit long in the yard," Nix said.
Another way to offset smoke is to heat with natural gas, borough officials say. But it's costly to make the transition from oil- or wood-burning to gas and can come with high monthly utility bills.
Nix, who lives in Butte, burned through 10 cords of wood a winter, in addition to fuel oil, when he moved there in 1998. He switched to natural gas just last fall. He loves it.
"I'm a firm believer that the end-result solution is natural gas," Nix said. "For me, it took a long time. It's hard to pay the cost to get natural gas installed, and the furnace and all that. Paying these huge bills just to stay warm."
Burning wood in wood stoves is a problem, officials here say, but so is open burning. One gravel pit burning slash near the air-quality sensor can temporarily bump the reading out of compliance. The borough will also ask people to halt open burning during weather alerts, Barker said.
Butte is at the center of the discussion because it's the location of one of two air-quality monitoring stations in the borough. But other places like Sutton run into wood-smoke issues as well, Barker said.
The DEC posts air-quality updates on a daily basis.
Officials here say Mat-Su residents need look no farther than the Fairbanks North Star Borough for a glimpse into the future if air-quality standards aren't met.
The EPA designated part of the borough as a "non-attainment area" out of compliance with the Clean Air Act. Environmental groups this week sued EPA over what they called the slow pace of fixing air pollution problems.