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EPA warns of consequences if Fairbanks fails to meet air quality deadline

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Posted: Friday, September 28, 2012 12:27 am | Updated: 11:34 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — With just a few days remaining before a local vote on a Fairbanks air quality initiative, a new letter from the Environmental Protection Agency explains what could happen if the Fairbanks North Star Borough and the state fail to meet a December deadline for having a satisfactory plan to comply with federal clean air standards.

The Tuesday letter, produced out of discussions borough Mayor Luke Hopkins has had with EPA officials, says a failure to meet the deadline would result in reduced funds for highways or additional regulations on energy projects and the possibility that the federal government could impose its own air pollution regulations.

The state and the borough are working on what’s called a State Implementation Plan, a document that details the programs the borough and state will use to clean up the borough’s air pollution by 2014. The state has until Dec. 14 to submit a plan that satisfies the EPA.

The borough’s existing efforts all fit into that program. They include the wood stove exchange program, bus routes and a planned complaint-driven emissions program to contact, educate and, if needed, fine the worst wood burners.

Hopkins says Proposition 3, which would bar the borough from imposing any air quality regulations, would jeopardize that effort. Hopkins will be up for re-election on the same ballot as Proposition 3 on Tuesday.

“If we don’t have control measures locally and the state doesn’t have any that are significant in any manner,” he said, “do you think the governor of Alaska is going to say ‘Impose a regulation that says you have to have a burn ban’? It’s not realistic.”

Hopkins said he believes the state doesn’t have the means or the political will to achieve the reductions sought by the EPA. Modeling produced by the borough in conjunction with the Department of Environmental Conservation and air quality consultants Sierra Research shows the borough must reduce its 24-hour air pollution levels by as much as 25 to 30 percent by 2014 to satisfy the standards.

What if the state’s plan doesn’t comply because of Fairbanks?

The letter to Hopkins from EPA Region 10 Director of the Office of Air, Waste and Toxics Rick Albright says a failure to meet the deadline for a viable plan would start a clock ticking by which the EPA could impose 2-to-1 offset sanctions or highway funding sanctions within 18 months.

“Offset sanctions require that new or expanded stationary sources must offset emissions of the non-attainment pollutant by 2 tons for every 1 ton of emission growth,” Albright wrote. “Highway funding sanctions prohibit federal funds for transportation projects within the non-attainment area, except for certain safety, transit and air quality beneficial projects.”

The letter goes on to say that once the EPA determines the state has failed to produce a plan, it will work toward establishing its own regulations within two years, a move Hopkins said he worries would include burn bans, as have other areas.

While Hopkins is concerned that passage of Proposition 3 would cause the state to fail to meet the deadline, the DEC has been less certain about implications of voter approval.

“At this point, DEC does not know what changes the passage of the local initiative might bring about related to local complaint response or the measures that might be included in the final air quality plan that leads to meeting the air quality standard for PM2.5,” said Alice Edwards, director of the DEC’s Division of Air Quality. “DEC will continue to coordinate closely with the borough to complete the air quality plan and to adjust, if needed, to address any changes to our current roles and responsibilities.”

Proposition 3’s sponsor, Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, questions the timing of Hopkins’ release of the letter and maintains that the state is best-suited to handle the borough’s air pollution with its current statutes. She said she believes the state will have no problem meeting the EPA deadline to prove it can come into compliance.

“The DEC has already been following up on air quality complaints the past two years, and most are now resolved, inactive, or being addressed this fall,” she said. “Luke wants the borough to take on a state power. Proposition 3 stops that from happening,” she said. “Honestly, the letter release timing looks like a last-ditch political effort by Luke to disguise the fact the borough is still seeking more code enforcement power.”

Hopkins said much of the information already has been available but that the letter spells it out clearly for voters.

“Does it have a bearing on Prop 3? Yes it will. This is the most definitive explanation of what will happen. Somebody tells us what we do. They were hoping that the borough would address this,” Hopkins said. “The best plan is a local plan.”

To that extent, Albright says the EPA agrees.

“EPA strongly believes that the most resilient (State Implementation Plans) are developed at the local and state level, tailored by the community for its specific air quality challenges,” he wrote.

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 or follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.

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