Air quality

Exhaust from idling vehicles add to the ice fog as Michelle Durrell of North Pole rolls a cart loaded with Christmas packages from family across the North Pole Post Office parking lot to her car Thursday afternoon, December 20, 2012. Ice fog and air quality advisories continue to plague much of the Interior. "You look at the way we live our life," Durrell said of the poor air quality, adding that people drive cars everywhere. Durrell also feels that there is too much emphasis on wood burning when it comes to pinpointing blame on air pollution. She heats her home with wood because it is efficient and saves money. "It's because it's so cold," she said of the inversion trapping the pollution and causing the poor air quality.

The state is getting mixed messages about its plan to reduce air pollution in Fairbanks and North Pole judging from dozens of written comments posted to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation website Sept. 6.

There are those who suffer on bad air days and want more government action and those who think regulating space heating in the subarctic is impractical. The comments come with plenty of technical analyses from company presidents, engineers and environmental compliance officers along with a complaint about chemtrails.

The DEC gathered comments from individuals, organizations, businesses, state leaders and more about its ideas to bring the area into compliance with the federal Clean Air Act for PM2.5, a byproduct of combustion that is harmful to human health. The pollution spikes on cold winter days when the air is stagnant.

Pending new state rules involving restrictions on coal-, oil- and wood-burning appliances would impact how thousands of people in the Fairbanks North Star Borough heat their homes and businesses.

One complaint repeated in multiple letters to the DEC was that a proposed new limit on the sulfur content of coal would cut off access to local coal supplied by Usibelli Coal Mine.

The DEC is looking at changing the sulfur content requirement to 0.2% from 0.4%. Usibelli is asking for the standard to be set at 0.25%.

The Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce also addressed the issue in a letter to the DEC.

“We think the proposed 0.2% sulfur content would not create a meaningful improvement in air quality but would set an unreasonable standard for mining local coal in Alaska, which would significantly disrupt the local energy market,” read the letter signed by Marisa Sharrah, chamber president and CEO, and Rebecca Dean, chairwoman of the board.

Commenters additionally criticized the July 1, 2020, deadline as too soon for a mandatory switch to No. 1 heating oil. They want the deadline pushed back to 2024.

Doug Chapados, president and CEO of Petro Star, which operates a refinery in North Pole, said prohibiting No. 2 heating oil will increase pollution when families who can’t afford the costlier No. 1 oil turn to a cheaper option: firewood.

Chapados estimated the average annual cost to households for switching to No. 1 oil will be $600. He pointed out that heating oil is the second-smallest source of PM2.5 despite being the predominant means that homes and businesses in the area get heat.

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, agreed about delaying the fuel oil change. He additionally touched on another common theme in the comments: enforcement.

Several commenters asked for the DEC to be granted authority to write smoke pollution citations.

The proposed regulations “lack any means to compel compliance,” said a statement by the Northern Alaska Environmental Center and submitted by Executive Director Elisabeth Balster Dabney.

Coghill warned that enforcement of air pollution controls would be met with “resistance and confusion.”

A proposed ban on the sale of green firewood starting in 2021 also was criticized, with commenters saying the price of firewood will escalate.

The longest and most technical written comments came from energy providers such as the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which operates its own heat and power plant.

UAF submitted two separate written comments from two officials. One official, Julie Queen, interim vice chancellor for administrative services, complained about proposed tighter rules for sulfur dioxide emissions.

Golden Valley Electric Association submitted seven pages of comments that also discussed the sulfur content in fuels and emissions of sulfur dioxide.

If the regulations are signed by Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, the path to cleaner air is expected to involve more burn bans, higher heating bills and higher electric bills.

The proposed rules require the removal of small-scale coal-fired heaters and outdoor hydronic heaters by Dec. 31, 2024.

The regulations would apply in the borough’s nonattainment area, which runs from Fairbanks down the Richardson Highway to North Pole, grabbing the Badger Road corridor. The eastern boundary reaches Chena Hot Springs Road. The western border encompasses the University of Alaska Fairbanks and property south of Chena Ridge Road.

The public comment period closed on July 26. The DEC is working on responses to the comments to be posted on its website at a later date.

Read the full written comments and transcripts of spoken comments at bit.ly/2kJeCbv.

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her at Twitter.com/FDNMborough

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