As skies above Interior Alaska are choked with smoke from wildfires, the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly is moving forward on a testing program for devices designed to reduce winter smoke particulate from wood stoves.

The assembly approved its intent to award a $353,900 contract for laboratory studies on items known as Retrofit Control Devices. The goal is to quantify the reduction of fine particulate from wood burning.

Testing will include catalysts and devices known as electrostatic precipitators. Connecticut-based company ClearStak won the bidding process.

A total of $458,000 is available for testing pursuant to a 2018 ordinance (2018-20-1G).

Borough Air Quality Manager Nick Czarnecki said that testing is necessary to ensure that RCDs contribute to solutions long into the future.

“We’re thinking long-term with this, and what needs to be done to ensure these devices contribute to the solution years from now,” Czarnecki said.

He explained that both catalysts and ESPs have potential for different reasons. Catalysts only cost one-third the price of the precipitators, but the ESPs are more effective.

Both units will be tested in pellet stoves. If the results are promising, tests will expand to cord-wood burners.

The assembly only approved its intent to award, and the contract has not been signed. Therefore, the cost of the retrofit devices is still proprietary information.

However, Chief of Staff Jim Williams said the scrubbers are exceptionally cheaper than expected, and the cost will soon be made public.

It will likely take about four months to complete the tests. Borough officials hope trials will be finished in time to update a State Implementation Plan being drafted by the Alaska Department of Conservation.

“We have to gather a lot more data to get statistically relevant data,” Czarnecki continued.

Because voters in October barred the borough from regulating home-heating devices, any action plan must first be approved by DEC before being sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The assembly quickly approved the testing contract after lengthy discussion on a separate but related ordinance. That ordinance would have stripped funding for the testing, but failed with a 5-3 vote.

Assembly members Marna Sanford, Andrew Grey and Shaun Tacke sponsored the ordinance to cancel the tests. They argued that ESPs are a proven technology, and the money would be better spent immediately retrofitting wood stoves to provide immediate results.

Sanford said ESPs have been subjected to reams of testing and that people burn regardless of burn bans.

“I think ESPs work, and I think they need to get onto people’s stove ASAP,” Sanford said.

Czarnecki acknowledged that ESPs work, but he countered that current European tests show a wide range of success — between 30 and 93% effectiveness.

ESPs are common in other countries, but are little used in the U.S.

Assemblyman and Presiding Officer Matt Cooper voiced strong opposition to the ordinance that would have removed funds for testing.

“The goal here is to get something the EPA is on board with. … I think there’s a real advantage to getting this into the SIP,” he said.

Cooper also credited the EPA for its flexibility with testing requirements.

Assemblywoman Liz Lyke summarized the present challenge in the debate between testing and immediate action.

“How do we make it better immediately, and make sure it’s better in the future?” she asked. “A device that has EPA approval gets it in the hands of more people.”

Public comment on the testing ordinance was split.

Jimmy Fox said he wanted to see the more rigorous test results, and that canceling tests would “move us back.”

Mike Prax supported moving forward with the tests, but acknowledged it may be a “setback in the short term.”

Rich Seifert wanted the assembly to halt the tests.

“This (ESP) is a proven technology, mostly in the utility industry. … Do whatever you need to do as public officials to get this technology to us,” Seifert said.

Patrice Lee, a longtime air-quality advocate, also wanted the borough to skip the testing. “We need smoke reduction, we need a field test,” she said.

She also indicated a group of people are setting up a nonprofit designed to increase access to retrofit devices, and that Golden Valley Electric Association may provide funds to begin an ESP project.

Contact the newsroom at 459-7572.