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Risky removal: Wood stove change-out program is endangered

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Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 4:16 pm, Fri Jan 25, 2013.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial/b>

The Oct. 2 vote to prohibit the borough from regulating wood stoves could be more damaging to local air-cleaning efforts than expected because it could eliminate the stove change-out program. The borough should make every effort to continue the stove change-outs, but prospects look a little bleak.

As Mayor Luke Hopkins explained last week, the measure approved by voters Oct. 2 prohibits the borough from regulating solid-fuel burning heaters “in any way.” While removing a hydronic heater or trading out an old dirty wood stove for a new clean-burning stove itself are voluntary acts, the rules that a participant must follow to obtain borough financial assistance are not optional. They are regulations.

Those common-sense rules appear to be necessary for the program, so they can’t just be dropped. In addition, the change-out program is state-funded, and the state grant appears to require the rules, the mayor said.

So the effort might have to follow all those old stoves into the garbage bin, he said.

That would be an unfortunate outcome. Even before the Oct. 2 election, the borough had fallen short in its efforts to create a plan that could reduce fine particulates enough to meet federal air quality standards. Without the change-out program, the borough will fall even further in the hole.

Here is the ballot proposition that voters approved Oct. 2: “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.”

The mayor said the borough regulations guiding the stove change-out program conflict with that measure.

For example, the regulations say a person who removes a hydronic heater or other stove with financial help from the borough must sign a deed restriction prohibiting the installation of any other solid-fuel burning stove in the home for 10 years. Also, according to borough ordinance, anyone who removes or replaces a solid-fuel burning heater with borough assistance must “fully comply with the inspection process required by the (air quality) division.”

Those rules seem to “regulate,” “prohibit” or “curtail” the “distribution” of stoves in various ways, so they arguably conflict with the voter-approved proposition. However, one might argue that the change-out program rules actually affect neither the sale, distribution nor operation of stoves but rather only their “installation,” so the rules don’t conflict with the voter-approved proposition.

Some also might say the borough should maintain the change-out program but just drop the deed restrictions and inspections. That doesn’t seem like a wise way to spend public money. And it might not satisfy the terms of the original state grant. The borough has another more recent and less restrictive grant that it might be able to use, but, again, dishing out money without inspection rules seems unwise.

The stove change-out program won’t get Fairbanks into compliance with air quality rules, but it’s one piece that could help. If there is any way to keep it, the borough should do so. The outlook isn’t good, though, so the borough and state might need to add more measures to comply with the federal air quality standards.

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