EPA takes final action on plan to improve Fairbanks-area air quality

a woodstove pipe
A woodstove pipe on a Fairbanks-area home (Dan Bross/KUAC)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced final action on a state plan to improve wintertime air quality in Fairbanks and North Pole.

The agency’s final so called “partial disapproval” of the state air quality plan for the Fairbanks-North Pole non-attainment area is the latest step in a long-running back-and-forth among federal, state and local officials to reduce fine particulate pollution.

EPA Region 10 spokesperson Bill Dunbar said the action does not include a state and locally contested switch to more expensive ultra-low sulfur diesel heating oil.

“Ultimately (we) came to the conclusion that indeed ultra-low sulfur diesel is just not cost-effective or, at this point, available enough,” Dunbar said.

Dunbar said the agency is also re-evaluating proposed new sulfur dioxide emission controls for local coal-fired power plants. Updated modelling has changed the understanding of sulfur dioxide emissions and the formation of fine particulates.

“(The data) indicates that maybe sulfur dioxide isn’t as much of a problem, isn’t really creating the amount of particulate matter that the state and EPA initially thought,” he said.

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation air quality program manager Nick Czarnecki says the state agency is working on additional analysis that shows the controls aren’t needed and will be among issues addressed in an amended plan.

“We have to go back and fine tune the plan a little bit, come out with a little more stronger control measures, maybe,” Czarnecki said. “And the state will be coming out with a proposed plan and there will be time for public comment on that sometime this spring or early summer.”

Both Czarnecki and Dunbar highlighted progress already made to address local wintertime fine particulate pollution, but its levels need to be halved to meet a federal Clean Air Act standard. Dunbar said the EPA’s latest targeted airshed grant for the Fairbanks North Star Borough will continue support for a long-running program that pays to upgrade or replace the primary source of local fine-particulate pollution: woodstoves.

“(The grant helps) people to be able to convert from burning wood to liquid fuels,” he said. “But also for the first time these grant monies will be available to expand the availability of natural gas in the borough and we think that that’s going to be a game-changer.”

The EPA will work with the borough’s Interior Gas Utility to extend natural gas distribution lines into additional neighborhoods in North Pole, where winter air quality is the worst. Czarnecki said $4 million will be spent on the expansion.

“The four million is a starting point,” Czarnecki said. “We’ve been successful over the years with EPA with getting these grants, and over the past six years we’ve gotten about 42 million from EPA in these grants, so we’ll just continue to take it one chunk at a time. And it all adds up in the end, and helps us get to that: get to cleaner air.”

FNSB Mayor Bryce Ward, who has followed the 10-year saga, cautions that it’s far from over.

“It’s going to take a lot of commitment and work by the community to get us to attainment and then once we get there we’ve got to maintain,” Ward said. “And so I think as a community we’ve got to be prepared for that. That this is not something that’s going to go away. We’re going to be dealing with this for quite some time in the future.”

Failing to meet the Clean Air Act fine particulate standard is triggering a federal sanction. A local transportation construction planning document has been frozen as-is, with no additions allowed, until the EPA approves the air quality plan.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

Previous articleAnchorage soldier dead, 2 men wounded in Spenard shooting
Next articleSteller sea lions top list of Alaska marine mammals killed by human activities