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Proposition 3 stokes Fairbanks wood stove debate

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Posted: Sunday, September 23, 2012 11:47 pm

Editor’s note: The Daily News-Miner continues its series of stories looking at the candidates and issues on the Oct. 2 municipal election ballots. For complete coverage and candidate Q&As, visit newsminer.com/election

FAIRBANKS — In what’s becoming a perennial ballot issue, voters in the Fairbanks North Star Borough will be asked to weigh in on the borough’s efforts to handle air pollution when they head to the polls Oct. 2.

Proposition 3, which would prevent the borough from regulating air pollution, is one of three measures voters will see on the borough ballot. The others are a renewal of the borough revenue cap and about the composition of the Borough Assembly.

Sponsored by Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, Proposition 3 has the intention of letting the state assume regulatory authority for air quality in the borough.

The measure reads “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.”

Wilson said she championed the initiative because she believes enforcement is the state’s duty and it would be onerous and costly for the borough to assume regulatory authority.

“We truly believe that the state has the resources and the manpower to be able to take care of those who are violating state statues, which basically tells you what you can and cannot burn,” she said.

It’s not the first time Wilson has been involved in the borough’s air pollution policy. In 2010, Wilson helped pass a similar initiative that barred the borough from fining people who burn wood. That measure offered some room for the borough to develop limitations on burning wet wood, railroad ties and other smoky or polluting materials. Proposition 3 removes such provisions, leaving enforcement up to the state.

Alice Edwards, the director of the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Air Quality, said the state enforcement process includes written letters, notices of violation, nuisance abatement orders and, if necessary, civil and criminal penalties.

•••

If Proposition 3 passes, Edwards said she’s unsure what impact it will have on the budget or the state’s role.

Voters resoundingly rejected an initiative last year that sought to create a fine system and ban outdoor hydronic heaters.

Also at issue is a 2009 advisory vote that borough residents approved to establish a memorandum of understanding with the state that specified that the borough will take the lead in developing and executing an air quality plan.

Wilson interprets parts of the memorandum to require the state to maintain regulatory authority.

Proposition 3 has been met with opposition from people who worry about handing local control to the state or the to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is imposing a 2014 deadline for the borough to meet federal air quality standards.

A group that includes Fairbanks lung specialist Dr. Owen Hanley, former borough Mayor Jim Whitaker and Assemblywoman Nadine Winters has formed to oppose Proposition 3.

Hanley said in addition to the health impacts of air pollution, a reason to defeat Proposition 3 is the risk that a plan tailored by the DEC or EPA could include outright bans on wood burning.

“If this passes, the borough relinquishes control over air quality and the DEC will take corrective action,” he said. “And my concern is that they don’t have a lot of presence here … so they likely will solve this problem any day it goes above (federal standards), then wood burning is banned. It’s much easier than running around and tapping on people’s doors.”

A number of communities in the Lower 48 that have air quality problems resulting from wood have adopted mandatory burn bans that either cut off or limit wood burning on days where air pollution is high or climate conditions could create air problems.

Hanley argues that air pollution is a critical issue of public health that must be addressed locally to allow borough residents to safely burn wood, which he acknowledges many people must be able to use because of economic reasons.

Other communities might be able to survive a burn ban, Hanley said, but not Fairbanks.

“That’s a terrible thing to happen to Fairbanks,” he said. “Everybody who is burning wood responsibly and is doing everything right could be punished.”

Instead, Hanley said residents should rely on the alternative that already has been adopted by the borough and is scheduled to go into effect in late October, when the 2010 measure backed by Wilson, a former candidate for borough mayor, expires.

The assembly-adopted plan sets up a complaint-driven system whereby existing air quality staff would contact households to determine if there’s a problem and then offer education and other resources, such as the borough’s wood stove change-out program, to help reduce air pollution. The measure has fines, but they’re a last step if earlier efforts fail.

“It is and will remain a complaints-driven process,” said Adelia Falk, a borough air quality employee. “It’s more than a simple warning. We would get a complaint and if we saw something similar to the complaint then we would make contact and we would try to work with them to resolve the problem.”

Wilson argues such a program would cost the borough taxpayers additional money, but Falk, who clarified that as a borough staff member she cannot take a stance on the proposition, said there are no plans to increase staffing to enforce the assembly’s regulations.

•••

To the question of funding for air quality, at a recent borough meeting, borough air quality manager Jim Conner said most of the department’s funding comes from federal and state sources and not property taxes.

In recent years, the state has put funding and resources into the borough under the memorandum of understanding that was approved by voters in 2009. Edwards said the state has been committed to helping the borough accomplish its efforts on everything from voluntary programs, like the wood stove change-out and education programs as well as enforcement.

“The DEC has been putting considerable resources toward assisting the borough with development of the plan. This has been a priority for the department as a whole,” she said.

The borough and the state must develop a plan and model by the end of the year that can prove the borough can get its air pollution under control by 2014. If it fails to develop a plan or if the EPA finds the plan isn’t sufficient, the EPA could cut off all federal highway funding to the borough or even to the state.

In addition, as Hanley worries, the EPA could move forward with administering its own air quality regulations.

Some, like mayoral candidate Norm Phillips, have argued that the state and the borough need to stand up to the EPA and win an exemption on the borough’s inversion days, when air quality is the worst, as it already has with forest fires.

Such an exemption, Hanley said, is unlikely when looking at how other communities have interacted with the EPA and still will leave the borough with the same problem of air pollution.

Others have pointed out that the most recent air quality statistics show improvement and a reduction in complaints, but much of that was chalked up to a milder-than-expected winter, with existing voluntary programs accounting for a small percentage of improvements. In addition, the overall three-year trend, which is what the EPA is looking to see improve, is still on an upward climb.

To her opponent’s calls for local control, Wilson said that’s exactly what Proposition 3 aims to measure.

“We keep on talking about talking local control; what’s more local than a ballot initiative,” she said.

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