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Posted: Sunday, September 30, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 4:16 pm, Fri Jan 25, 2013.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial

Just as Fairbanks enters another winter, residents will be asked to block the borough from regulating heating appliances that create the season’s often poor air quality. Voters in Tuesday’s election should allow our local government to keep working on the problem.

Fairbanks voters might be tempted to tie the hands of local officials with Proposition 3, as they did two years ago. That simply would let state and federal bureaucrats tighten their grip. It shouldn’t be our first choice.

Supporters of Proposition 3 note that local air quality has improved even as the borough’s options remain limited by the similar proposition approved in 2010. So, they argue, voters should extend those limits for at least another two years without fearing a worsening of our air or the intrusion of more drastic policies by state and federal officials. In the meantime, perhaps natural gas will arrive and solve the problem.

This argument has a few weaknesses.

First, no one knows whether the borough’s existing education and wood stove change-out programs led to the improved air quality or if those improvements resulted from favorable weather. Weather seems likely to have played a major role, which means the existing programs, while essential, can’t ensure adequate protection in coming winters.

Second, Proposition 3 is a far more comprehensive ban on borough action than voters approved in 2010. Proposition 3 would not extend current borough air quality rules; it would eliminate several.

In 2010, voters said the borough “shall not ban, prohibit, or fine residents for the use of home heating devices.” Given the ambiguities in that language, the borough has continued to regulate heating appliances in several significant ways.

For the past two years, for example, borough rules have prohibited the “installation” of new stoves, in the core populated area, that don’t comply with emission certain standards. The rules also require that anyone buying a new, non-compliant stove sign an affidavit promising not to use it in the core area.

People who get new stoves through the borough’s change-out program must promise not to install any other solid-fuel burning stoves in their homes for at least 10 years.

In addition, the borough prohibits the burning of many materials — wood that’s more than 20 percent water, preserved or painted wood, glued wood products, garbage, tires, plastic, rubber, glossy or colored paper and several other materials that produce a lot of particulates.

The 2010 measure also can be amended starting next month; in fact, the assembly has done so prospectively, with a ban on dense smoke scheduled to take effect in late October.

All these rules would go away if Proposition 3 passes. That’s because its language is far more comprehensive than the 2010 measure. The key paragraph of Proposition 3 states: “The borough shall not, in any way, regulate, prohibit, curtail, nor issue fines or fees associated with, the sale, distribution, or operation of heating appliances or any type of combustible fuel.”

Supporters of Proposition 3 say this language is appropriate because the state already has a number of air quality regulations, some of which mirror the borough’s, and an enforcement program.

But the borough is not just duplicating the state’s effort, as the above-mentioned rules illustrate. It also is trying to find additional measures that have a demonstrable chance of meeting federal air quality standards by 2014. The measures being used now won’t do it, according to modeling.

If the borough can’t create a viable plan, the state will do it. A state plan could include a burn ban during cold days, as occurs in Juneau. That would be a truly unfortunate and economically devastating rule if applied here.

A vote for Proposition 3 would make such a burn ban more likely. Voters should reject the measure and allow the borough to continue working on locally developed solutions.

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