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Fairbanks air clears slightly; fuel oil prices drive more to burn wood

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Posted: Monday, December 3, 2012 11:57 pm

FAIRBANKS — After a week of air quality alerts, pollution dipped in the Fairbanks North Star Borough on Monday as a temperature inversion boundary shifted higher.

But Borough Air Quality Jim Conner said the borough isn’t free of pollution and said residents need to reduce their smoke production or they’ll see a winter of bad air.

Conner said a combination of a particularly cold month, inversions and high fuel oil prices have driven more people to switch to wood burning.

“(The winter) is going pretty bad so far,” Conner said. “It’s worse in general because I think there are a lot more wood burners. The price of fuel hasn’t dropped enough and people are taking steps to survive financially; they’re not going to switch back unless they can afford it. It’s just ridiculous what they’re paying.”

Conner said the rise in the temperature inversion boundary’s elevation will only bring temporary relief from high particulate matter levels. It effectively is just a larger container for the air pollution, Conner said.

Conner said recent weeks don’t forecast the rest of the winter.

“In Fairbanks, you can never tell what the year will be like,” he said.

Conner said the borough has tried a number of routes to clean up the winter air pollution. However, the recent local election, in which voters barred the borough from regulating air emissions from home heating devices in any way, has put a severe limit on what the local government can do.

The Borough Assembly last month amended the borough’s stove replacement and removal grant programs to create stronger incentives to install cleaner-burning wood stoves. However, other voluntary measures, such as a wood drying program and a subsidy to burn fuel rather than wood, largely have been rejected by the assembly.

For this winter, Conner said, individual initiative offers the best hope for cleaning up the air. Recent meetings and press releases from the borough have encouraged residents to switch to oil if they’re able.

“The best way, in every respect, is people volunteering to do it,” he said. “It’s a community problem and they need to take responsibility for their emissions.”

Although the borough doesn’t have the ability to curtail wood smoke, other bodies, such as the state or the federal governments, could do so, Conner warned.

“The only few things we can do to reduce the amount of wood smoke in the next few years is for people to switch on really bad days,” he said. “If they want to continue to burn wood, there really isn’t any other way.”

He said other relief, such as improved stove technology or natural gas, are too far off to meet the federal clean air deadlines.

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544.

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