The head of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation told about 100 people at a luncheon Tuesday that he is confident the newest plan to reduce air pollution in Fairbanks and North Pole will succeed by 2030 if not sooner.
The DEC focused on “trying not to have a big impact on the residents” in ongoing efforts to bring the area into compliance with the federal Clean Air Act, DEC Commissioner Jason Brune said.
“I think the great news is, within the decade, we will have solved this problem with what we have put forward,” Brune told members of the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce. He was the featured speaker at the chamber’s weekly luncheon at the Carlson Center.
The commissioner went over some of the pollution control measures that went into effect on Jan. 8 and more measures being implemented in years to come. He touched on state air pollution regulation enforcement. Brune said to expect more burn bans because of stricter thresholds for calling air quality advisories. He spent most of his time offering examples of how the DEC relaxed some of its proposed measures in response to criticism.
Reductions in air pollution in recent years show that efforts are on the right track, Brune said, but more pollution-control measures will be offered for public comment later this year.
“We now have to prove that we can decrease the PM2.5 levels in the air by 5% on an annual basis,” he said.
The state has sent out 59 advisory letters this winter to suspected polluters, according to DEC officials. Five complaint letters, which Brune said are more sternly worded, have gone out to suspected second offenders.
The next step is civil court. That has yet to happen under Brune’s watch, he said during an interview after his speech. He hopes it doesn’t come to that, he said, but for people who hear about a burn ban and decide to burn a tire in their backyard, he said, “for those types of people, we are going to have to take action and we will.”
State regulators are driving around and monitoring compliance, Brune told reporters.
One of the pollution control measures highlighted by the commissioner during his speech was a mandatory change for people who burn oil for heat. The state is mandating a change from No. 2 grade oil to No. 1 grade oil, which is more expensive. That deadline was pushed back to 2022 except for the Golden Valley Electric Association. The utility will be required to burn No. 1 oil at its power plant in North Pole on bad air days starting later this year, according to DEC officials.
Sometime in 2023, the state will implement even stricter rules for power plants such as GVEA, according to Brune. GVEA was given more time to prepare while the state explores mandating ultra low sulfur diesel at its North Pole power plant.
The state is also holding back on requirements for the Fort Wainwright coal-fired power plant — one of the oldest in the nation — so officials there can review options for either updating or replacing the facility, according to Brune.
The DEC dropped the allowed sulfur content in coal burned at area power plants, but by less than what was originally proposed, Brune said.
He also discussed a requirement for wood sellers to sell only dry wood. The start date for that measure was pushed back to begin in the fall of 2021.
“We took the comments that we received and we made changes based on your input,” Brune said in his public remarks.
He praised GVEA for purchasing chimney smoke scrubbers that are reportedly being installed in private homes in North Pole.
Brune said he will be seeking another $5 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce air pollution in Fairbanks.
Chances of approval are good, he said, because “we have some of the worst air in the nation on non-attainment days.”
After his remarks, he was approached by Jack Wilbur, chairman of the finance committee for the Interior Gas Utility, who lobbied for assistance with converting residents to cleaner-burning natural gas. The IGU is making a big push to add customers next summer, but that will involve people needing to modify or replace furnaces at their own expense.
Brune said the EPA deemed the state’s newest pollution plan, submitted in December, as complete and will take up to a year to decide whether to approve it. At the same time, another plan with more control measures is in development.
Air pollution control measures apply in a federally-recognized area known as the non-attainment area, which includes the most polluted areas of the borough such as the cities, Badger Road and West Fairbanks.
Air pollution monitors in Fairbanks and North Pole spike on cold winter days when the air is stagnant and chimney smoke lingers at ground level. Minuscule particulates in the smoke are a well-documented health hazard.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMborough.