FAIRBANKS — The failure of Proposition 2 means the Fairbanks North Star Borough has the chance to regulate air pollution for the first time in four years, but a cautious approach aimed at involving the community means local controls won’t likely be part of the plan the state sends to the feds to show it’s serious about cleaning up the air.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation owes the federal Environmental Protection Agency a plan by the end of the year proving it can reduce Fairbanks’ chronic wintertime air pollution to meet federal standards set in the Clean Air Act.
The plan takes stock of everything from fines for particularly bad burners, voluntary programs like the wood stove exchange, activity on natural gas and possible regulations on wood stoves.
“The plan under development was being built based on the borough’s authorities prior to the election and the local programs currently in place,” said Alice Edwards, the head of DEC’s air quality division, in an email this week. “The upcoming year-end federal deadline for plan transmittal to EPA does not provide much time to incorporate new ideas before the draft plan is released for public review.”
That means the state plan, which must include the scientific modeling to show Alaska can meet federal air standards in the next few years, won’t be able to take credit for whatever the borough does in the coming months.
“However, air quality plans are living documents that are routinely amended over time and we expect that will be the case for this local plan as well,” Edwards added.
That plan, which needs to be put out to for public comment and review before it can be sent to the EPA, was debuted in a draft more than a year ago. There has been little public news on it since then.
The draft included tougher regulations on wood stoves and the ability to declare air quality episodes and take, at the time unspecified, action. The draft regulations didn’t rule out the possibility of burn bans on particularly bad days for households that had and could afford non-wood heating.
Wood smoke is a main contributor to the borough’s poor wintertime air quality and growing concern about its health impacts. A 2010 state report showed higher hospital visits related to heart, lung and strokes on poor air quality days.
The borough has been under a voter-passed ban on local regulation of air pollution since 2010, but a renewal failed by about 3 percentage points with local voters on Oct. 7. The results of election will be certified later this month, allowing the assembly to repeal the ban.
The assembly has urged a measured approach to dealing with air quality, taking stock of recently approved voluntary measures before adding in any new regulations, but Assemblyman John Davies said it’s an issue that the assembly must deal with.
The head of Citizens for Clean Air, a group that opposed the measure, said after the election that the vote can’t be considered a mandate and that both sides must come together to work out a solution that works for everyone.
“We have to move forward with a plan that accomplishes the goals and just rushing into something willy nilly isn’t going to do what we want it to do,” said Patrice Lee. “We have to be respectful of the whole community.”
Edwards echoed the sentiment, saying that community involvement will play an important role in whatever measures are chosen by the state or the borough in the next few months.
“While time is short to complete and transmit the plan to EPA, it is critical that the air quality plan work for the community. Local input is critical to crafting an approach that makes sense for the area and DEC looks forward to further discussion with the borough administration and the community on this important issue,” she said. “The success of any plan is dependent on the ability and willingness of the public to implement it.”
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.