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Fairbanks parents, teachers take on air pollution fight

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Posted: Monday, December 10, 2012 12:03 am

FAIRBANKS — After weeks of poor air quality in parts of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, parents and teachers are beginning to take it upon themselves to fight air pollution.

Teachers and parents at Woodriver Elementary School, one of the schools hardest hit by wintertime smoke, have formed a committee for cleaner air and other parents are drumming up support for the Borough’s Air Quality Division’s public meetings this week.

That’s because the borough no longer has the ability to enforce air pollution regulations on home heating devices in any way thanks to the passage of Proposition 3. Parents are now looking to the state for help relieving the persistent air pollution that has been shown to cause health problems, particularly in the young and elderly.

Watershed Charter School parent Carrie Dershin said she and other parents have become increasingly worried about air pollution as more research and monitoring are done in the Fairbanks area.

“As the parents, once we started looking into it more it was really concerning,” she said. “Seeing the levels and seeing how extremely poor it was for all the children was really concerning.”

Dershin is rounding up support to attend two air quality meetings this week hosted by the Borough’s Air Quality Division.

The first meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Watershed Charter School near the airport and the second will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Nordale Elementary School. The division held a meeting in North Pole last month.

The two schools have suffered from particularly bad air quality during the past few weeks

according to the borough’s vehicle-mounted air monitoring.

With technical solutions, like natural gas or ultra clean-burning stoves, years away, Air Quality Manger Jim Conner said the only realistic solution in the next few years will to be to reduce wood burning on bad days.

“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.”

Whether the prolonged air pollution is worsened by the cold or the inversion, it’s still human-produced wood smoke that is the source of the pollution, Conner said.

Since the passage of Proposition 3, the borough has taken a more supportive and educational role to dealing with the borough’s air pollution problems, offering services like the the wood stove exchange program.

Proponents of Proposition 3 said it should be up to the state to handle the Fairbanks area’s air pollution woes, even though the state has not taken a strong stance against pollution so far.

A group of concerned teachers and parents from Wood River Elementary is doing just that and have taken it upon themselves to petition the state and Gov. Sean Parnell for relief from particularly bad wintertime air pollution.

With a handful of smoky hydronic heaters in the area, the school has suffered through particularly bad air pollution during the past few years. Students will have to spend some recesses indoors because of the pollution and the group says recently installed air filters don’t keep all the smoke out of the classrooms.

In a letter to Parnell, the group wrote:

“We need your help to stop the immediate pollution of our air by at least two outdoor wood burning hydronic boilers located directly across the street from the Woodriver elementary campus.”

The group went on to say it will make a coordinated effort to report air quality complaints with the borough and the state.

“The students and staff of Woodriver Elementary School have the right to breathe clean air,” it wrote. “When will the assault on our health stop?”

The efforts come just a week before the state must file a plan with the Environmental Protection Agency that proves it can meet the 2014 federal deadline to clean up the borough’s air pollution.

Dershin said, ideally, groups of concerned parents and teachers from many different schools will be able to unite as a strong community-wide voice to try to make a difference.

“All of us are impacted, but as a healthy adult you might not worry about it, but my lungs aren’t developing anymore. I’m not in that critical time of growth and development that our kids are,” she said. “We’re mortgaging the health of our kids by not addressing this. How can we do that to people who need us the most?”

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