Valley residents defend their right to burn wood — but it could cost them

PALMER — Mat-Su is Alaska's latest front in the battle over winter smoke, air pollution and complaints about government overreach.

Last month, local officials rejected an update to an air quality agreement with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation meant to prevent the kind of federal interventions that already trigger costly regulations, burn bans and citations in Fairbanks and Juneau.

[EPA sets stricter standards to control Fairbanks air pollution]

At a Mat-Su Assembly meeting in January, residents complained that the government was trying to take away their right to burn wood in the name of "junk science," and the update failed.

Borough Manager John Moosey received four times as many public comments before the meeting as any issue he's handled in 30 years as a municipal manager: 24 phone calls, 38 emails.

"The wood stove issue and the fear that the borough is going to take away people's rights is at the forefront of people's minds," Moosey said recently.

Keep it local

The new agreement, officials say, was meant to address wood smoke pollution by authorizing changes like voluntary stove replacement programs or the ability to shut down open burning outside when air quality worsens.

It was also meant to avoid the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The state warned in 2016 that Butte — a community near Palmer where winter cold-air inversions trap smoke — was a few air quality violations away from failing federal Clean Air Act standards.

"We are in a situation where we don't have federal regulations and we don't have the state imposing some of the strict regulations that Fairbanks needs," said Brianne Blackburn, an environmental planner who oversees the borough's air quality program. "We want to prevent ever getting into that situation."

Over their cold hands

In the days before last month's Assembly meeting, a flyer circulated on social media.

"Borough to take woodstoves? Tell Manager John Moosey NO!"

The flyer featured a photo of a fireplace wood stove with a red "no" symbol. It said the update, if passed, "could begin to remove existing freedoms tied to heating your own home, increase your heating costs, allow anyone to tell on you for burning wood while hiding their identity and significantly increase administration costs at the Borough."

During January's meeting, various officials assured the crowd the borough had no plans to take away anyone's stove.

The borough sells firewood. At least four Assembly members and the borough mayor, Vern Halter, use wood stoves.

"There's been a lot of misinformation that's been fed to you," said Assemblyman Dan Mayfield, who represents Big Lake.

It's unclear who produced the flyer.

It was posted on Facebook by Lazy Mountain resident Brian Endle, who ran unsuccessfully for Assembly against Jim Sykes — the body's only member to support the updated state air quality agreement.

Endle didn't return calls for additional comment.

The day after the Assembly rejected the update, he posted a jubilant message to the Alaska Republican Assembly Forum group on Facebook that began, "Praise God!"

Endle pointed to the borough attorney's statements that the borough can terminate the entire agreement with the state at any time. A 2006 agreement with DEC remains in place; it establishes the borough's authority to conduct public education.

Burn clean

Governments around the state emphasize clean-burning practices for people heating with wood as the best way to address pollution.

Burning dry, seasoned wood at high heat is key to reducing smoky air, they say.

Mat-Su launched a public education program on burning dry wood in 2016.

It's unclear just how many Valley residents still rely on wood to heat their homes. Natural gas is easier but can be pricey and isn't available everywhere. Many residents without access to gas install Toyos or other oil-burning stoves.

In Butte, a 2011 report based on 2000 U.S. Census data found just 9 percent of the 2,500 to 3,000 residents relied on wood to heat their homes. Nearly half used natural gas and almost 40 percent relied on fuel oil.

Two-station blues

There are just two air quality monitors in this borough the size of West Virginia. One was installed in Palmer and has never registered a violation.

But the other one, near the "green store" off the Old Glenn Highway in Butte, got within one bad-air day of putting the borough in "non-attainment" status last year, a step that could trigger EPA involvement.

Butte sits in a low bowl often protected from the winds that buffer the Valley, and it's subject to cold-air inversions that trap smoke. On bad days, a haze hangs over homes. Students at Butte Elementary sometimes can't go out to recess, borough officials say. Dogs come inside smelling of smoke.

Many during the mid-January Assembly meeting expressed frustration that the borough was about to regulate the entire Valley based on one problematic monitor in Butte and another in Palmer.

"We're making decisions based on two stations, again, for a borough the size of a regular state," said Assembly member Ted Leonard, who represents Wasilla. "So we're going from zero to 100 based on two stations."

But Blackburn said the updated borough-state agreement could have prevented just that. If the EPA ends up regulating air quality, the agency tends to create a compliance area based on established political boundaries — like boroughs.

"If we can do things locally, we can affect just Butte," she said. "If we don't do these things, the EPA could come in feasibly and the first place they're going to start is that borough boundary."

Junk or justified?

The science behind air pollution regulation also came under scrutiny from residents who criticized the lack of local data on the health risks of wood smoke particulates.

Assembly members complained that there was no detailed report about the update, and asked for more information.

Steve Renner, a real estate agent who lives near Palmer, said the lack of accurate data was "despicable."

Renner said in an interview last week that the public didn't get the information they deserved.

"My property taxes have just been climbing thanks to big government. People are tired of it," he said. "Give us something of value when you're going to bring something like this to the table. That's really what it was all about."

Borough planners say there is ample credible, peer-reviewed research available on the health effects of wood smoke particulates, or PM2.5, through the EPA. But because of the high level of agency mistrust, they're trying to locate local studies from the American Lung Association or Mat-Su Health Foundation to respond to concerns.

That shouldn't be necessary, said Glenn Miller, transportation director for the Fairbanks North Star Borough, who has overseen air quality programs since the 1980s.

"Frankly, there is very little argument in my opinion anyway that anyone can argue that PM2.5 is not a health issue," Miller said. "There's so many studies out there that if you can't find it, you're not looking."

When the feds take over

The Fairbanks North Star Borough was forced to comply with EPA air quality rules about decade ago after violating wood smoke particulate standards.

Since then, the borough has spent more than $1 million every year on anti-pollution measures and last year began issuing tickets to residents burning on ban days, Miller said.

The borough issued three citations in 2017 and has handed out one so far this year, though two more are pending. More than 2,000 people have participated in some form of stove replacement incentive program, at an average cost of $5,200. Some of that comes from state or federal grants, but local taxpayers have paid millions.

"If you can avoid it, it's well worth it at any cost," he said.

Mat-Su planners say they hope to answer questions that came up from the public and Assembly members at a March meeting.

Meanwhile, they're looking at voluntary options to ban open burning on bad air quality days.

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at