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New wood-burning regulations need citizen comments now

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Posted: Thursday, November 14, 2013 12:32 am

FAIRBANKS — Remember when the vehicle inspection and maintenance program started back in 1985? For 25 years, Fairbanks was subject to expensive and time-consuming regulation that in the end achieved absolutely nothing — our CO problem was solved by improvements in vehicle emissions technology. It’s critical to remember that history, since we now have another round of regulations coming forward, designed to appease another federal mandate, this time for particulate matter in the air.

I will address the proposed PM 2.5 regulations that the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has put out in draft form and encourage those in the Interior to publicly comment on them. The new regulations will affect us for years to come, and, since they will be modified before implementation, we should make sure to give input on them.

First, there is a proposal to prohibit all wintertime outdoor open burning (between Nov. 1 and March 31). This is probably going a little too far, especially since there are burning restrictions in the summer because of forest fire danger. We have a statute that allows the state to restrict burning on “air quality advisory” days, which are days air pollutants reach certain levels. DEC could just restrict open burns on those days. It also would be nice not to have New Year’s Eve bonfires canceled or stop all winter camping. As a Boy Scout growing up, I really appreciated fires when we camped out in the winter, and I haven’t heard of anyone linking ill health effects to warming up by a campfire.

The next change being made is actually to make existing regulations more flexible so that air quality advisory days won’t prevent people from heating their homes by default. Then there is a section on what types of fuels can be burned — wood (including pellets) in woodstoves, and coal in coal stoves. The one thing that was pointed out to me that is missing is new technology like the “energy log” that is being looked at by the local pellet facility, which will give a cheaper, better burn than normal wood logs. We need to make sure that alternative technologies aren’t all marginalized from the get-go.

The fourth section is one of the two main sticking points of these regulations. It basically requires that all new wood-burning heating devices sold or transferred in the Interior for use in the non-attainment area (most of Fairbanks and North Pole) will be rated under 2.5 grams per hour of particulate matter emission. The catch is the final paragraph. It shows some common sense in exempting stoves that are already part of a house, but it defines “house” as only a single or multi-family residence. So what about detached garages with a wood stove? Or shops or sheds? What about commercial buildings with wood heat? The rule not only wouldn’t let you sell them, you couldn’t even lease them without changing out your heating system. 

When this point was brought forth to the DEC commissioner at a meeting with the Legislature’s Interior delegation, he said all existing stoves would be grandfathered, but there is no language that actually states that in the regulations. This is one of the most important points to comment on, to make sure that no selling or leasing of structures of any kind will be restricted because of the heating system that a building already has in place. This could easily cost Fairbanks millions of dollars, based on all the sales and leases of the next few decades.

It’s also important to have DEC exempt masonry stoves from its regulations, since masonry stoves don’t have realistic ways of testing them to meet standards but are generally acknowledged as being quite efficient.

The next section sets levels for the air quality advisory days. The levels seem to be set pretty low (56 micrograms per cubic meter for the first level).

The sixth section has the other onerous part of the regulations. It expands the authority of who can issue and enforce air quality advisory days from the state DEC to also include local programs. It seems to override the citizen’s initiative that the voters overwhelmingly approved locally to stop the borough from its implementation of regulations and hiring smoke police. It surely will bring about a court case if implemented as envisioned. Please make sure and let the state know that we do not need them regulating away our initiative that sent a clear message that we want the state to take care of this. Note that this is also a fiscal item, since property taxes will be used if the borough gets involved in enforcement.

The last section is just the additions of definitions of different items that were added to the regulations. You can see the new regulations for yourself and make comments at this website: dec.alaska.gov/air/anpms/comm/fbks_pm2-5_proposed-regs.htm. The next open house will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20, at the Watershed School, 4975 Decathlon Ave. (near the airport). There will then be additional meetings in January for information and public comment.

Lance Roberts is a member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the assembly or borough administration.

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