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Fairbanks, North Pole pollution levels could be highest in U.S.

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Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 11:30 pm | Updated: 12:07 pm, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — The particulate pollution levels in North Pole and in Fairbanks in recent days have been among the highest in the United States.

Direct comparisons are difficult because of weaknesses in the way the data is reported and collected from cities and states across the country, but some lessons can be learned.

What I can say is this — the government website www.airnow.gov — showed no place in the United States with pollution levels matching those reported in North Pole and Fairbanks this week.

That the conditions here are worse than those in the nation’s largest and most crowded cities should be regarded as a threat to public health. With the stagnant air and nightly lows expected to dip down to from 25 below to 40 below on the valley floor, the problem is not expected to ease for days. Lows in the hills are expected to be about 5 below.

The North Pole conditions have been classified as “very unhealthy” this week, with pollution levels far in excess of the federal standard for clean air, while in downtown Fairbanks the air has been described as “unhealthy.” That forecast was extended Wednesday until this afternoon.

The airnow website is a cooperative effort of four federal agencies, along with many states and local governments. It makes it possible to check on air quality in more than 300 cities and compare conditions.

Neither the state nor the Fairbanks North Star Borough is participating in the voluntary program, which is a mistake that should be rectified.

Sharing information on this site, which is easy to use, would be one of the most effective ways to increase local understanding of the scale of the pollution problem.

With the severity of winter pollution when the air is stagnant, there is no reason for Fairbanks to be excluded from this key public health index.

In addition, the borough and the state need a more widespread monitoring and public reporting system that is easier for people to use and understand.

The reporting system needs to be able to differentiate, for example, between conditions on the valley floor and those 100 feet up in the hills and higher. It also needs to be user friendly. The current system is not.

When the borough and state post advisories saying the air is unhealthy or very unhealthy and excessive breathing is a bad idea, there ought to be some way of clarifying the problem.

Is it limited to the flatlands? Or to locations where one homeowner smokes out an entire neighborhood? Or to crowded subdivisions where everyone burns wood?

The so-called “non-attainment area” includes the hills, not because the air is bad at high levels but because of the belief that the pollution produced there will flow down into the valley.

Public education on these matters is critical, especially with the deadline fast approaching for submission of a state plan that is supposed to show how Fairbanks will comply with clean air standards. The state should also provide details of how or whether it intends to enforce clean air laws.

While participation in the national air reporting system would improve the level of awareness and put our problem in a broader perspective, we do have local information posted by the borough that gives an hourly and daily look at conditions in downtown Fairbanks and North Pole.

On Tuesday morning, the airnow website stated five places in California had the highest pollution levels in the Lower 48 — Hanford, Bakersfield, Fresno, Visalia and Elk Grove. The particulate levels ranged from 29 to 58 micrograms per cubic meter.

In Fairbanks and North Pole, the numbers ranged from somewhat below 100 to more than 200.

•••

EVA CREEK: Ten of the 12 wind turbines at Eva Creek are generating part of the power for the Golden Valley Electric Association system, with the final two nearing completion.

Last week the turbines provided enough power to turn the lights on in 12,000 homes for a week, GVEA said.

Dermot Cole can be reached at cole@newsminer.com or

459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMdermot.

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