FAIRBANKS — Can a device designed to scrub wood smoke of toxic particles help solve Fairbanks’ pollution problem? Some leaders at the Fairbanks North Star Borough want to explore the question and are proposing to launch a testing program for domestic chimney smoke scrubbers. It is estimated to cost up to $458,000.
If approved, the program would be the first of its kind in the United States, according to Air Quality Manager Nick Czarnecki. Domestic smoke scrubbing devices are implemented in places such as Europe but are uncommon in the U.S.
The Borough Assembly is scheduled to vote on the appropriation at its regular meeting Thursday.
“The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has never quantified benefits from after-market control devices on wood stoves,” Czarnecki told the assembly at a finance committee meeting last week. “We are basically blazing new ground here in the United States.”
If approved, results from the testing would start rolling in at the end of the upcoming smoke pollution season when, on cold winter days, smoke churns out of chimneys and lingers at ground level when the air is stagnant.
The borough has a deadline of Dec. 31, 2019, to bring down levels of PM2.5, a toxic particulate found largely in wood smoke. In North Pole, where a monitor is reporting the highest concentrations of episodic PM2.5 pollution in the country, the borough is required to reduce the health-eroding particulates by 80 percent, Czarnecki said.
Borough administrators are lukewarm about whether emissions control devices connected to household chimneys could significantly reduce PM2.5. Borough Mayor Karl Kassel said he suspects manufacturers of smoke scrubbers are overly optimistic about their promise. Testing by independent third parties has suggested that manufacturer claims are inflated, he said.
“Our professional (suspicion) is that they will not produce emissions as clean as fuel oil does,” Kassel said at the finance meeting. “But we don’t know, so we can spend this money and find out.”
Testing of a smoke-scrubbing device known as an electrostatic precipitator has been conducted in the borough. A group known as Citizens for Clean Air is leading the project and funded it in part through a GoFundMe campaign.
Under the borough ordinance, sponsored by Kassel and Assemblymen Lance Roberts, Matt Cooper and Van Lawrence, a competitive-bidding process would be held to select a smoke scrubber to be tested by the borough.
Manufacturers who contribute resources to the testing project would be scored higher. The scoring matrix would also consider consumer price, existing testing data and the number of existing installations.
“The process will be open to any manufacturer of a retrofit emission control device that is currently in production; this process is not intended to be used for research and development of devices,” states the measure, Ordinance 2018-20-1G.
The borough administration has already been working with the EPA “to establish protocols for quantifying emission reductions of after-market emission control devices for residential wood burning stoves,” according to the ordinance.
The smoke scrubber would be tested on a pellet stove and two types of wood stoves, one with a catalytic converter and one without. Results from pellet stoves have the best hope of being reliable, according to Czarnecki. If the device fails to show significant PM2.5 reductions using the pellet stove, the testing would stop and the project would halt.
If the smoke scrubber shows promise, it could be used on homes that have an exemption from burn bans, according to officials.
No smoke scrubber in existence is known to dramatically reduce PM2.5 to the levels needed for the borough to comply with the U.S. Clean Air Act, according to Czarnecki.
“There could be better ways to spend local resources,” he said.
But he added that the testing could help with a plan being developed by the state that must show, using scientific data, how the borough plans to get PM2.5 levels down.
The borough will need to use a variety of methods to bring down particulate pollution, Czarnecki said.
“Everything is going to play an important role,” he said.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7587. Follow her on Twitter: