FAIRBANKS — The state of Alaska filed its first lawsuit against the owners of two outdoor hydronic wood boilers last week, an unprecedented step in the ongoing battle to clean up Fairbanks’ wintertime air.
The civil case, filed in court Jan. 3, seeks to shut down two outdoor wood boilers near Woodriver Elementary School that the state claims violate public nuisance laws by blanketing the West Fairbanks neighborhood with wood smoke.
The two boilers are located at rental properties on Palo Verde Avenue and Trinidad Drive that are owned by Andrew and Gloria Straughn, who are named as defendants in the case.
The civil action cites nearly 200 complaints filed with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation by neighbors, Woodriver employees and parents of Woodriver students since the boilers were installed in 2008.
“The OWBs at both of the properties owned by the defendants have, at times, emitted smoke that has impacted the health of some neighbors and has unreasonably interfered with the neighbors’ enjoyment of life and property,” the complaint states.
A message left with the Straughns was not returned by press time.
The two wood boilers have been the focus of long-running efforts to clean up the local air and have come to represent the wider problem of Fairbanks’ wintertime air pollution.
This winter, Woodriver staff began a concerted effort to file complaints with the state. Dawn Brashear, a counselor and PTA member at Woodriver Elementary School, said the group has filed more than a dozen complaints this year with the intention that each one represents every student and staff member affected by the smoke.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a 2014 deadline for the borough to clean up its wintertime air pollution. The state is working on a plan to prove it is capable of meeting that deadline.
Voters in October passed a measure that bars the Fairbanks North Star Borough from enforcing regulations on air pollution from home heating devices. Supporters of the measure said it is up to the state to get involved.
The lawsuit is the first time the state has filed a court complaint against an owner of a polluting home heating device in the Fairbanks area. The state has sent a handful of nuisance abatement orders in the past few years, including one to the Straughns on March 10, 2011. The complaint states the Straughns continued to operate the boilers in a way that was a nuisance to the neighborhood.
In addition to seeking to shut down the boilers, state statutes allow it to seek monetary penalties between $500 and $100,000 for the initial violation and up to a maximum of $10,000 per day after the violation.
The lawsuit has been received positively by the Woodriver community, Brashear said.
“Yes, the state is doing something, but I was hoping that they would have done something in 2008,” she said. “Why has that not been enforced until four years later? But I am pleased that there is movement to justice and enforcement of the law.”
State officials did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544.