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Air quality ballot measure goes before Fairbanks voters

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Posted: Sunday, October 3, 2010 4:46 am | Updated: 1:19 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS — Voters will be asked Tuesday whether to enact a law preventing the Fairbanks North Star Borough from banning, prohibiting or fining residents for the use of home heating devices.

The ballot measure would undo air quality regulations enacted by the Borough Assembly in June that largely target wood burning.

A “yes” vote on Proposition A would effectively turn over air quality regulation to the state. The state’s top air quality official, Alice Edwards, said it’s not completely clear how the state might handle enforcement if the ballot measure passes.

Some of the borough rules govern the types of new stoves that can be installed. Other rules say residents cannot burn in a manner that is a nuisance to a neighbor. There are rules about what people can burn, and starting in September 2011 a new rule kicks in limiting the toxic emissions belched by some wood and coal stoves.

The borough’s top air quality official, Glenn Miller, said the municipality has investigated some nuisance smoke complaints, but no enforcement actions against residents have taken place so far.

A group known as the North Star Landowners is behind the ballot measure. Group chairwoman Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, said she believes the borough would be better off with the state taking the lead on air quality enforcement in Fairbanks.

“I don’t know how the state would make it any worse than what the borough currently is doing,” Wilson said.

The group also includes businessman Craig Compeau; Rick VanderKolk, an aide to Wilson; and radio personality Michael Dukes, a candidate for the Borough Assembly.

Wilson said the core issue is the cost of energy in Fairbanks. More people are burning wood because the cost of home heating oil has skyrocketed.

Emissions from the increasing wood burning include the tiny particles known as PM 2.5. The federal government has put Fairbanks on notice to reduce levels of PM 2.5 by 2014.

“This is an energy problem,” Wilson said. “I think the bottom line for us is the state has the resources to help us with affordable energy solutions, and they have the resources to tell the (Environmental Protection Agency) that when we get an affordable energy alternative, we will be able to meet these air quality parameters. We should be doing things to find affordable energy versus restricting one of our only alternatives that is affordable now.”

Groups have also formed in opposition of Proposition A. A few dozen people met Saturday outside Woodriver Elementary School, perhaps the best example of the air pollution debate’s neighborhood-level character. A handful of the school’s neighbors use wood-fed, outdoor boiler heaters, and parents, administrators and teachers have consistently lobbied the borough for help.

The measure comes one year after voters steered responsibility for pollution-prevention to the borough government, and its opponents include the Woodriver parent-teacher association. Mayor Luke Hopkins and three Borough Assembly candidates, Hank Bartos, Kelly Brown and Diane Hutchison, attended Saturday’s rally.

Resident Duncan Marriott said some Proposition A advocates have misrepresented the measure by saying it will secure “local control” over air quality.

“Prop A does not support local control. It removes the borough’s control,” Marriott said.

Sylvia Schultz said she empathized with neighbors who experience pollution. Her Goldstream Valley neighborhood is relatively smoke-free, but Schultz said she opposes Proposition A out of “foresight” — her daughter will attend middle school in a pollution-troubled neighborhood in two years.

David DeLong, Nina Harun and son Joseph Harun-DeLong oppose the measure and said Fairbanks should balance residents’ right to home heating choices with broader health considerations and the general right to breathe clean air.

“There’s no private property like the inside of your lungs,” DeLong said. Harun said pollution from older, inefficient or improperly used wood heaters injures neighbors’ property rights.

The state and the borough have an agreement that puts the municipality in the lead as far as air quality planning. Edwards said the state will wait for a cue from the borough before taking on air quality enforcement.

“Depending on the outcome of the ballot initiative, we would expect the borough, as the air quality planning lead, to let us know whether changes are needed to our current roles and responsibilities as outlined in our Air Quality Memorandum of Understanding,” Edwards wrote in an e-mail. “(The) DEC would continue to work with the borough to analyze the situation and its impact on the overall air quality planning effort.”

If the measure is approved, a program would remain that provides tax breaks and payments to residents who relinquish or trade-in their old dirty wood stoves.

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7544.

Staff writer Christopher Eshleman contributed to this report.

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