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Setbacks, stack heights need to be part of wood boiler review in Fairbanks

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Posted: Saturday, November 24, 2012 12:17 am | Updated: 12:08 pm, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

In voting this week to allow people in the city with outdoor wood boilers to replace them with newer models, the Fairbanks City Council neglected two key issues — setbacks from property lines and stack heights.

In 2009, the city banned outdoor wood boilers, an action that came about when city leaders realized that it had been a mistake to allow them in the first place on tiny city lots.

In response to complaints from the owners of outdoor boilers in the city, however, the council grandfathered in the existing wood boilers, with the understanding that this was the way to phase them out.

The measure approved unanimously by the council Monday would allow the owners of those old boilers to replace them with newer ones that don’t pollute as much.

But what the council members missed for the most part is that the placement of a hydronic heater on a list by the Environmental Protection Agency saying that it is superior to an old boiler does not address the total issue.

There is the matter of whether any of these devices, old or new, belong on small city lots and the associated issue of how high the stack is from the outdoor wood boiler.

Minimum setbacks and minimum stack heights are common practice in many state and communities.

The council should adopt both before any replacements are approved.

If reasonable setbacks are impossible because lots are too small, then perhaps the city should set a deadline for having the boilers removed.

Regardless of what happens with setbacks, the city should look again at the ordinance it approved Monday and refine its action.

There is a wide degree of variability in the amount of pollution produced by the so-called “Phase 2” outdoor boilers, most of which create several times as much pollution as a good woodstove. Some of the boilers are much cleaner than others, according to EPA tests.

Instead of accepting all of these boilers, the city should limit its approval to those that produce the lowest levels of pollution.

This ordinance should be revised before any replacement boilers are approved.

•••

AIR INFORMATION: Earlier this week, the air quality forecast for North Pole was “unhealthy,” while the forecast for Fairbanks was “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”

In addition to the regular forecasts of air quality conditions, the borough has four sites providing constant air monitoring that can be checked on the Internet.

This week, for instance, there have been many hours with elevated levels of particulate pollution close to the ground in low-lying areas, the product of wood smoke, coal smoke, oil furnaces, vehicles, etc.

At 2 a.m. Wednesday in the Hurst Road and Badger Road area, for example, the particulate levels topped out at 228 micrograms per cubic meter. That's thick enough to irritate your eyes and give the entire area the smell of a campfire. If levels of that sort continued for 24 hours, the pollution would be nearly seven times higher than the maximum level considered “clean” by federal rules.

The levels declined in the hours that followed, but the spikes in pollution are creating unhealthy levels of exposure.

There were also elevated levels at the two sites in Fairbanks, but not anywhere close to the same degree as in North Pole.

The four sites are a good start in developing better public awareness. But Mayor Luke Hopkins, the borough assembly and the state Department of Environmental Conservation should expand this program and establish several additional monitoring sites in the Fairbanks and North Pole areas.

The existing North Pole monitors are the fire station at 3288 Hurst Road and North Pole Elementary School. The two stations in Fairbanks are at the borough offices along the Chena River and on the state building at 675 Seventh Ave.

The data from these sites is not enough to make area wide declarations about healthy and unhealthy conditions.

There should be additional stations in South Fairbanks, along Badger Road and other North Pole neighborhoods, near the airport, in University West, College and other areas.

The borough, the state and the university should recognize the deficiencies and get a more informative air quality monitoring system in place, one that shows real-time conditions in local neighborhoods.

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

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