Fairbanks and North Pole residents shared their thoughts on air quality issues abounding the Fairbanks North Star Borough during public hearings Wednesday afternoon and evening hosted by Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the borough. 

The ADEC hosted the hearings to gather input from affected residents on the state’s draft of the Serious State Implementation Plan for the borough fine particulate matter nonattainment area.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency requires the plan in order to bring the borough’s level of fine particulate matter — PM 2.5 — into compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. Areas of Fairbanks and North Pole are required to reduce pollution levels by more than half or the borough faces sanctions, including reduced federal highway aid, under the act.

A majority of the air quality issues in the Fairbanks area are due to wood smoke from home heating in the winter in combination with low temperatures. 

If the plan is approved, thousands of homes would be required to switch to more-expensive No. 1 fuel oil starting July 1, 2020. Older-model wood stoves, coal-fired heaters and outdoor hydronic heaters will have a Dec. 31, 2024, deadline to be removed and destroyed. Limiting the installation of wood stoves in new homes is also part of the regulation package, which is part of a proposed State Implementation Plan for air quality.

The EPA asked for the new air quality plan after the borough was declared a serious nonattainment area in 2016. The state and borough worked together to design the implementation plan in an effort to include the local community in the decision-making moving forward. 

Owen Hanley, a man from Fairbanks, encouraged the DEC to increase consequences are violating burn limits within nonattainment areas explaining that he felt people wouldn’t be inclined to comply with regulations unless there were punished for not doing so. 

“The SIP has lots of elements to help us solve our air quality problem. But two things are lacking, one is resources and the second is enforcement power,” Hanley said. “ADEC doesn’t have citation authority. People are going to ignore speed limits if it has no consequences so education and letters are a good first time plan but for those who repeatedly ignore the burn restrictions that have been put out are going to have to have some consequences officially carried out otherwise ADEC’s words won’t be taken seriously and we’ll have poor compliance and little progress.”

Mike Prax, on the other hand, told Brune that the issue is over regulated and further enforcing the regulations would only create further animosity over the topic. 

“I think you need to trust people,” Prax said, urging against increased citations. “Talk about it, not enforce it. It really is enforcement. There was a lot of angst about the letters that the DEC was sending out. We need to realize both sides of this issue. 

Several testifiers mentioned the possible benefits of utilizing electrostatic precipitators, electronic smoke filtration devices common in Europe that are being tested as a way to reduce smoke pollution in Fairbanks.

Liz Greig is a Hamilton Acres resident and noted the extremely poor air quality in her neighborhood during cold weather. 

“Despite the size and scope of the (Interior Gas Utility Liquefied Natural Gas) project, they are not going to be able to meet the deadline of Dec. 31 in terms of mitigating the PM 2.5 levels. Electrostatic precitiators will go a long way towards mitigating the PM 2.5 levels,” Greig said. “I would like to know that the state considers the electrostatic precipitators a reasonable and valid component of any plan that’s put forward.”

Patrice Lee, who represented herself but also spoke on behalf of the local organization Citizens for Clean Air, also urged the increased use of electrostatic precipitators and increased citations.

“Health, of course, is the reason for the Clean Air Act. When all is said and done, I hope that health and safety and people remain as a top priority as we move forward with a plan to clean up our air. A balance is needed between the ability to heat your home and stay healthy and one doesn’t need to preclude the other,” Lee said, noting that the use of electrostatic precipitators could be used to mitigate fine particulates without breaking the bank. “They’ve been tested extensively, we know they work.”

Other topics brought up by residents included the desire for more information regarding alternative fuels and additional education on the issue. 

Individuals were given three minutes to testify while those representing organizations in the Borough were given five minutes. 

Overall, around two dozen borough residents provided testimony during the two hearings. Those who are unable to attend are encouraged to provide written testimony to Cindy Heil, Division of Air Quality, ADEC, 555 Cordova St, Anchorage AK 99501; or by email to dec.air.comment@alaska.gov; or online at bit.ly/2XdElL9.

Public comment will be accepted on the implementation plan until July 26. 

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMPolitics.