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Proposition No. 3 would repeal air pollution rules on home heating

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Posted: Friday, September 14, 2012 10:00 pm | Updated: 11:23 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — A group headed by a longtime Fairbanks doctor and former Borough Mayor Jim Whitaker has filed to campaign against the initiative to repeal the borough air pollution laws regarding wood smoke.

The “No on Proposition 3” group is chaired by Dr. Owen Hanley, with Whitaker as co-chair and Assembly Member Nadine Winters as treasurer.

Winters said their main argument is that current borough rules on wood smoke are sensible and should remain in place.

An initiative championed by Rep. Tammie Wilson on the October ballot would repeal the borough rules and turn all enforcement of air pollution violations over to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Proposition No. 3 says this:

“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.”

Voting yes would remove all regulations on air pollution created by wood stoves, coal stoves, etc.

In 2010, Wilson and other backers of the so-called “Home Heating Protection Act,” said that no regulation by any government was required to deal with wood smoke pollution and that problems were “isolated, not pervasive.”

With thousands of more people burning wood and more people burning coal because of the high cost of fuel oil, the pollution problem is noticeable on the flatlands from Chena Pump to North Pole on winter days when the air is stagnant.

Wilson said it was “government at its worst” to regulate the way people heated their homes.

“I believe it is a fundamental right of every person, and family, to heat their home, responsibly, with any natural resource available,” Wilson stated in a 2010 news release.

Later in the campaign, however, Wilson said the state already had the power to regulate pollution and said she favored that approach.

But the state hasn’t shown any enthusiasm for enforcing air pollution laws and there have been no demands from legislators or local government for the state to change its tactics.

Sending a couple of nastygrams to the owners of outdoor boilers on the Steese Highway near Farmers Loop and near Woodriver Elementary School doesn’t count as state enforcement.

For the upcoming Oct. 2 municipal election, Wilson is promoting Proposition No. 3, the “Home Heating Initiative.”

I think the goal all along has been what she said at the beginning — that government should not regulate what people burn for heat in Fairbanks, whether it is wet firewood, old tires or railroad ties.

The existing borough rules are hardly onerous. They say, for example, that if someone is putting out an excessive amount of smoke, the borough has to first make reasonable efforts to contact the person and provide information about how to reduce pollution.

After that, there would be a $100 fine for a violation of the “emissions standard,” which says that except when a stove is being started, the smoke from the chimney can’t exceed 30 percent opacity for more than 15 minutes per hour. 

The opacity limit in Washington State is 20 percent, which is far more stringent. Juneau has a higher opacity limit than Fairbanks, 50 percent, but the local government also has the power for burn bans and other measures not on the table in Fairbanks.

With the election approaching, the Department of Environmental Conservation should be providing a clear statement about what it will do and will not do if Wilson’s ballot measure is approved. But DEC has declined to do so. That’s unfortunate.

This measure has statewide consequences because Alaska must submit a statewide air plan to the EPA that shows what is being done about air pollution in Fairbanks.

If the EPA does not go along with the Alaska air plan, all of the state’s federal highway money may be at risk. There will be little enthusiasm in Anchorage and Juneau for a major fight with the federal government over road money based on Fairbanks not wanting to clean up its air.

By the way, the EPA rules on particulate matter pollution were approved during the Bush administration.

Whether or not Proposition No. 3 is approved, the state has to submit an air plan to the EPA that will show how air problems can be dealt with. It is possible that the restrictions with state enforcement would be substantially greater and more rigid than those with local enforcement, as the borough government is far more likely to be swayed to take a hands-off approach when people show up at a meeting to complain.

In that sense, Wilson and others opposed to regulation should be careful about what they ask for. And those who want enforcement may find that getting the borough out of the regulatory effort would force the state’s hand.

Dermot Cole can be reached at cole@newsminer.com or 459-7530.

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