Federal air quality officials visit Fairbanks

Wood stove pipe on Fairbanks area home (Photo by Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks)

Fairbanks North Star Borough residents have to find ways to burn less and cleaner to bring the community into compliance with federal air quality regulations. That’s the message from Environmental Protection Agency representatives in Fairbanks this week to talk about chronic wintertime fine particulate pollution in some area neighborhoods.

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Speaking at a North Star Borough Air Pollution Control Commission meeting Tuesday, EPA Region 10 Air and Waste Director Tim Hamlin emphasized that government and the public have to solve Fairbanks North Pole area fine particulate pollution problem together.

”We are here to work collaboratively with our partners at the Department of Environmental Conservation and in the Borough, to address the challenge of achieving clean healthy air and warm homes in the North Pole and the borough in particular,” Hamlin said. “Right now, this week is the time for us to be thinking broadly and creatively about what’s going to work best.”

Millions of dollars have already been spent to remove or replace over 2,000 polluting wood and coal stoves and boilers around the North Star Borough, and to educate the public on clean burning practices, but some neighborhoods continue to see extreme spikes when inversions trap smoke at ground level. The borough is facing more stringent measures as it’s reclassified a “serious non-attainment area” by the EPA. Local peak pollution readings, the worst in the US, present a major challenge according to EPA air quality planner Justin Spenillo.

“Definitely realize it’s a difficult situation to balance out: the need for people to breath clean air, but also to keep their homes warm,” Spenillo said. “So how do we balance that out? It’s a situation we’ve seen but the extreme nature of it is unique.”

Spenillo outlined scenarios that have enabled communities in Oregon, Idaho and Washington to come into compliance, and said they all include similar components, most fundamentally burn bans.

”A commitment to a curtailment program which is kind of the backbone to any good program that we’ve seen to effectively reduce PM from wood smoke,” Spenillo said.

The North Star Borough recently tightened existing burn ban rules, but Spenillo stressed that bans only work when there’s strong community leadership and public buy in, a challenge when heating is a major expense, and wood is a local fuel source. During public testimony at last night’s meeting, Willowleaves Daeumichen, representing Kids for Environmental Action, urged people to think beyond themselves.

”You can have freedom, but it needs to stop when that freedom starts to get into other people’s property and hurting them,” Daeumichen said.

Daeumichen said she’s speaking up on behalf of friends suffering asthma and other health problems related to fine particulate pollution.

”A lot of other people can’t wait until someday to get their air cleaned up,” Daeumichen said. “It has to be now.”

EPA officials outlined a multi-year process to address the local air pollution problem, including assessment of economic impacts of control strategies, but officials did highlight a recently announced 2 point 5 million dollar agency grant to fund replacement of 6 hundred outdated wood and coal stoves and boilers in North Star Borough neighborhoods suffering the worst pollution.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.