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Amid alarm over rumored wood stove restrictions, Mat-Su rejects update to air quality agreement

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: January 17, 2018
  • Published January 17, 2018

Smoke blankets Butte in November 2013 as seen from the top of Bodenburg Butte. (Patty Sullivan / Matanuska-Susitna Borough)

PALMER — Mat-Su officials Tuesday rejected a contentious proposal to address air quality from wood burning amid loud complaints from agitated residents across the Valley.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly voted 6-1 not to update a 2006 agreement with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The new agreement would have allowed the borough to "implement reasonable and cost-effective strategies" to help mitigate air pollution, according to the resolution proposing it.

The state notified the borough last year that Butte was a few air quality violations away from failing federal standards, a situation that would trigger costly regulations, officials say.

The 2006 agreement, with an emphasis on education, remains in place.

A flyer circulated on social media in the days before the meeting was headlined, "Borough to take woodstoves?" Several residents in the audience Tuesday implied the borough was threatening their ability to heat with wood at all.

After the vote, borough Mayor Vern Halter lashed out at what he called the misinformation conveyed by the flyer, calling it "one of the dirtiest tricks I've ever seen" in nine years of elected office.

The borough covers an area the size of West Virginia but has just two air quality monitoring stations, in Butte and Palmer.

The Butte station has violated federal standards for small smoke-linked particles, known as PM2.5, in past years.

Many Butte residents heat with wood, and cold weather brings more burning and inversions that can trap the smoke low to the ground. Open burning at area gravel pits and other sites can also trigger problems. Palmer's station has never violated federal air quality standards.

Along with complaints about a lack of scientific data backing the air quality standards, people testifying Tuesday night said it wasn't fair to curtail burning across the borough when one isolated station in Butte registered high particulate levels.

One Big Lake resident urged the Assembly to "push back" against state and federal controls: "If I cut the cheese in my house, does everybody have to buy a can of Airwick?"

Dan Mayfield, an Assembly member who represents Big Lake, unsuccessfully proposed limiting the state agreement's scope to Butte and Palmer rather than the whole borough. That proposal was voted down 4-3.

Several Assembly members appeared to agree with audience concerns about a lack of scientific underpinning to the standards.

"We don't have staff analysis," said George McKee, who represents an area between Palmer and Wasilla and requested a more detailed look at the issue from borough planners.

The only Assembly member to vote for the updated agreement was Jim Sykes, who represents Butte and Sutton, another part of the borough where woodsmoke sometimes creates a smoky blanket.

Sykes after the vote said it's unfortunate the change was taken off the table.

"If we go into a non-attainment situation, we're going to really regret it," he said.

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