Fairbanks inversion

An inversion traps cold air and pollution across the city during a cold day in Fairbanks in January 2012.

State officials say they need another 10 years to cut episodic air pollution in half in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

The deadline under the Clean Air Act is Dec. 31, 2019, however. A change in federal law has been proposed to extend that.

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, sponsored a bill to push the deadline for areas of Fairbanks and North Pole to comply with smoke pollution standards to Dec. 31, 2028. The bill was created at the request of state officials, according to Sullivan’s communication’s director.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation maintains in a draft pollution cleanup plan that 2029 is the earliest the Fairbanks area can reach federal air quality standards. Particulate pollution levels here of 65 micrograms per cubic meter must be brought down below 35 micrograms per cubic meter to comply with the federal law.

“2029 is the most expeditious attainment date practicable,” states the air pollution cleanup plan being developed by the state. The pending plan is known as the serious State Implementation Plan, or SIP. The state is planning to turn over its final draft of the SIP to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by Dec. 15.

Environmental groups oppose loosening the deadlines. Some have sued, accusing the EPA of dragging its feet when enforcing the Clean Air Act in Fairbanks.

Jeremy Lieb, an attorney with Earthjustice, the law firm that has represented Fairbanks-based Citizens for Clean Air in multiple air pollution lawsuits, said Sullivan’s bill is unacceptable.

“It seeks to create new law establishing that the people in Fairbanks have less right to clean air than everyone else,” Lieb wrote in an email.

Particulate pollution levels in the borough have improved in recent years, but Fairbanks remains near the top of the EPA’s list of communities with the highest episodic particulate pollution in the nation. The World Health Organization warns that too much particulate pollution has been shown to erode human health.

Pollution accumulates in areas of Fairbanks and North Pole on cold winter days when the air is stagnant and emissions from chimneys and tailpipes linger at ground level.

According to the DEC, even an attainment deadline of five years from now is too soon. To get into compliance with the Clean Air Act by Dec. 31, 2024, would require 100% participation with Stage 2 burn bans, something the draft plan calls “unrealistic and not practicable.”

Sullivan’s bill, S. 2426, was introduced on Aug. 1 and referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, of which Sullivan is a member. No hearing has been scheduled, according to Mike Anderson, Sullivan’s communications director.

The bill does a few things. It offers new deadlines for reaching attainment, depending on what the EPA does, of as early as Dec. 31, 2023, or as late as Dec. 31, 2028. It pushes back the deadline for completing a new clean air plan to June 30, 2021. 

The bill was not discussed when Sullivan and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, accompanied EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler at a public hearing on air quality in Fairbanks on Aug. 19. Murkowski is a co-sponsor of Sullivan’s bill.

“Our primary focus during Administrator Wheeler’s visit was for him to hear directly from those impacted,” Anderson said. “Ultimately, this issue will be solved by all stakeholders at the local, state and federal level working together to find a solution for the Interior.”

Borough Mayor Bryce Ward agrees that the timelines in the Clean Air Act are problematic.

“We have shared concerns regarding the timelines established in the Clean Air Act and our ability to actually implement changes to improve our air quality within the time frames,” Ward wrote in an email. “I was not aware until this week that Senator Sullivan’s office had drafted a bill to change the timelines. I am looking into what the bill does and how it would affect the community if adopted by Congress.”

Once the Dec. 31, 2019, deadline passes, the EPA will eventually make a formal finding of “failure to attain,” according to local, state and federal air quality regulators. But first the state will request a five-year extension. Regulators expect the extension will be denied due to failure to meet qualifications.

Once the EPA makes a “failure to attain” declaration, a new plan for cleaning the air must be developed. This plan is known as the 5% plan because it requires annual pollution reductions of at least 5%. The state has already  started developing the 5% plan.

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.