Community perspective

Fairbanks air pollution brings collateral damage

Collateral damage is defined as “unintended damage or harm.” While no one thinks anyone in the Fairbanks North Star Borough intends to hurt others with air pollution, the fact remains that collateral damage to people from polluted air in our community continues to happen. One of government’s most important jobs, according to John Locke, is to allow individuals to thrive with the least interference. Poor health, illness, debilitation and premature mortality — all common effects of breathing dirty, polluted air — are not associated with thriving.

The current draft State Implementation Plan outlines gradual reductions over a 10-year period. The idea that the state would contemplate taking 10 more years to meet air quality standards is irresponsible and unacceptable. When smoke and other emissions stop or are filtered, the air quality gets better. We’ve been breathing polluted air for more than a decade. A prolonged, up-to-10-year plan risks playing Russian roulette with the health of approximately 100,000 people.

About $10 million has been spent in the borough’s wood stove change-out program to help people who heat with wood in the hope they will use dry wood and operate their stoves efficiently. People in our community, who have been harmed by air pollution containing some of the highest levels of PM 2.5 in the nation, and other pollutants, have received nothing. They’ve born the high cost of medical care or gone without. Some describe this as socializing the benefits while privatizing the damages. Clearly, property rights are in play here. A person’s most personal property is their lungs, heart, brain, etc.

When questioned at a local meeting to inform people about the State Implementation Plan for serious air quality, an EPA representative said that restitution for those harmed by smoke pollution has not happened to his knowledge.

When people cannot afford to get the medical care needed, the situation becomes life threatening. Our serious air pollution problem consists largely of PM 2.5 (smoke particles smaller than 2.5 microns) and other emissions such as diesel, coal, etc. Air pollution, and in particular PM 2.5, causes inflammation that makes people sick. Nearly every disease and condition can be promoted or made worse by breathing dirty air. The science is clear. Our doctors know the dangers of breathing polluted air. Who knows what ticking time-bomb illness may be lurking inside any person, waiting to be exacerbated simply by breathing?

Children who breathe at a faster rate take in more PM 2.5 and other forms of pollution. It is mind boggling that people who would never give their kids a pack of cigarettes to smoke seem unconcerned when the amount of smoke breathed by those same children in many parts of the borough can be equal to several packs of cigarettes per day.

People must stay warm. If they had affordable alternatives to burning, most would stop. The state can and should subsidize affordable, cleaner burning fuels such as natural gas and increase access to renewable energy. As a start, this should happen for the 30 to 40 days per winter when air pollution is worst. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation currently lacks any citation authority or adequate funding to carry out robust remediation.

There is a ray of hope. A grassroots community effort by wood burners and clean air advocates, called Smoke Busters, is working together to install 40 electrostatic precipitators on chimneys this season. The ESP technology is shown to significantly reduce PM 2.5 emissions. Support from the North Star Community Foundation and a generous grant from Golden Valley Electric Association is helping the Smoke Busters project move forward.

Where there is a will there is a way. The state can step up now by supplying subsidized natural gas, funding the DEC appropriately, obtaining citation authority from the Legislature this session, enforcing the federal Clean Air Act and state laws. Alaska must abandon any idea of prolonging air pollution in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Article VII of the Alaska Constitution directs the Legislature to “provide for the promotion and protection of public health.”

The federal Clean Air Act was meant to safeguard the air we all breathe. We must stop the uncompensated assault from polluted air on the health of those living in the borough. To simply assume that Interior residents continue to be collateral damage, both physically and economically, for up to 10 more years is unethical.

There are many ways to heat a home but only one way to breathe, one life to live.

Patrice Lee, a 41-year resident of Alaska, is a retired science and math teacher. She is an elected member of the Interior Gas Utility Board and is co-coordinator of Citizens for Clean Air, Citizen Science Air Quality Projects and the Smoke Busters ESP Project.

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