FAIRBANKS — State and local officials said they plan to ask for more time from the federal government to deal with smoke pollution in Fairbanks and North Pole. However, leaders of the group Citizens for Clean Air say the time to clean the air is now.
The Dec. 31, 2019, federal deadline for dramatically reducing particulate pollution is unattainable, said representatives of the Fairbanks North Star Borough and the state of Alaska. So, they are planning to ask for an extension of as many as five years.
“We have measures that are slowly working,” said Cindy Heil, air program manager for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
“What it comes down to is time.”
The request for an extension will be part of a pollution-reduction State Implementation Plan that is being formed by the DEC for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Heil said.
Members of Citizens for Clean Air want to see more urgency from the state and borough to address the smoke pollution.
“The state of Alaska and the borough were notified in 2006 that we had a problem, and the official countdown clock started in 2009,” Jimmy Fox, co-coordinator for the group, said in a statement.
“The state acknowledged hospitalizations from smoke were going up at the hospital as far back as 2003. The more smoke in the air, the more people were admitted. A study between 2008-2011 verified that 60 to 80 percent of the problem was from wood smoke. Twelve years later, and here we are.
“Though we may not know it or want to acknowledge it, our air pollution is hurting us, our children and our neighbors.
“People have left and more are leaving. If we don’t nip the problem in the bud, more will leave.
“If we don’t get this problem under control, we put future jobs and military deployments at risk. When we step back and look at the big picture, asking for a five-year extension looks like work avoidance and a cruel disregard for the people that have and will suffer for years,” he said.
Pressure on air-quality regulators also is coming from residents opposed to wood-burning rules. They say burning wood is their basic human right in this sub-Arctic region. A ballot measure is scheduled for the Oct. 2 municipal election aimed at prohibiting the borough from regulating home heating. In 2015, voters rejected a similar effort.
The borough has issued one citation for violating smoke control rules this winter, and the mayor has acknowledged that compliance with burn bans is low.
The EPA measures progress with reducing PM2.5 pollution by assigning cities a number, or a design value. The design value for the area covering Fairbanks and North Pole is 106— the highest design value for episodic PM2.5 in the nation, according to a chart on the EPA website.
That number — acquired by averaging three years of air-quality data — was calculated last summer using information gathered in Fairbanks and North Pole in 2016. The area with the next-highest design value, 72, is the San Joaquin Valley in California.
The design value for Fairbanks and North Pole has improved over previous years. The design value published in 2016, using 2015 data, was 124. The year before, it was 139. The goal under federal Clean Air Act is to get below 35. The standard recommended by the World Health Organization is 25.
The highest counts of episodic PM2.5 or particulate pollution in the country are coming from a monitor on Hurst Road in North Pole. Researchers have been studying PM2.5 for decades and said they believe a link exists between declining health and even small amounts of PM2.5 breathed over time.
The deadline to turn in the new SIP was Dec. 31, but state officials said they have requested an extension and that the plan will be ready later this year. A public comment period will be held before the plan is adopted, Heil said, though local smoke pollution rules being incorporated into the plan are in effect now.
A previous state plan failed to reduce PM2.5, a byproduct of combustion, including wood smoke. A new plan is being created after the nonattainment area covering Fairbanks and North Pole was redesignated by the EPA from “moderate” to “serious” last year.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7587. Follow her on Twitter:@FDNMborough.