Air Quality

A vehicle drives past an illuminated sign displaying the air quality forecast phone number at the corner of Cowles Street and Airport Way Wednesday afternoon, January 24, 2018.

FAIRBANKS - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency faces another lawsuit from environmental groups pressing the agency to address smoke pollution in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

On Wednesday, Earthjustice gave the EPA 60 days notice that it would be taking the agency to court "for failing to perform a nondiscretionary duty under the Clean Air Act."

A lawyer for Earthjustice said the federal Clean Air Act requires parties to give the 60-day notice before the filing of a lawsuit.

The planned legal action is over missed deadlines for filing a new blueprint toward reducing elevated levels of PM2.5, a minuscule particulate linked with a host of health problems such as heart attacks and aggravated asthma.

Emissions from home heating on cold winter days when the air is stagnant are believed to be the cause of most of the elevated pollution in parts of Fairbanks and North Pole, which were declared seriously out of attainment with the Clean Air Act in 2017.

A study has shown that visits to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital rise on bad air days, but reducing emissions from home heating has proved difficult in the borough's subarctic conditions.

A majority of voters earlier this month approved a ballot measure removing the borough's authority over home heating. Now the state is preparing to take over air-quality enforcement.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, is representing three groups: Fairbanks-based Citizens for Clean Air, Anchorage-based Alaska Community Action on Toxics, and the California-based Sierra Club.

“The Clean Air Act sets clear deadlines for planning and achieving compliance with air quality standards," said Jeremy Lieb, Anchorage-based associate attorney for Earthjustice, in a prepared statement. "The EPA and the state have repeatedly missed these deadlines, showing disregard for the health consequences of continued serious air pollution. We will continue to take legal action necessary to hold the agencies to their obligations to clean up the air in Fairbanks."

The environmental groups have made good on previous threats to sue over particulate pollution problems in Fairbanks and North Pole. Earthjustice took the agency to court over particulate pollution in the Fairbanks borough in 2016.

This time, they are threatening to sue because under federal law the state of Alaska was required to submit a new proposed plan for addressing particulate pollution no later than Dec. 31, 2017. State and borough officials are working on the new plan.

The other missed deadline was June 30, 2018, when the EPA was reportedly required to determine whether the new plan was complete.

The letter from Earthjustice was addressed to Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in Washington, D.C.

A spokeswoman for the EPA said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Copied to the letter were Chris Hladick, EPA administrator for the Pacific Northwest; Denise Koch, director of the Alaska Division of Air Quality; and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker.

A news release provided by Earthjustice stated that "the Fairbanks North Star Borough has the worst fine particulate matter air pollution in the nation — with levels spiking far in excess of the next most-polluted area and over twice the recommended limit for unhealthy air."

Patrice Lee of Citizens for Clean Air said in a prepared statement that "Fairbanks deserves better."

"The borough and state didn’t get the job done in more than 10 years, so dangerous levels of pollution remain in the air we all have to breathe. Until the EPA enforces the Clean Air Act, the health effects of fine particulate matter will continue to rain down on our children, the elderly, the disabled, pregnant women and everyone who has a pre-existing condition, known or unknown."

The EPA tracks the pollution using a measurement known as the design value. The borough's design value improved from 139 micrograms per cubic meter in 2014 to 85 micrograms per cubic meter in 2017. The goal is to get the PM2.5 average below the EPA standard of 35.5 micrograms per cubic meter.

This is the fourth time environmental groups have confronted the EPA over fine particulate pollution in the Fairbanks borough. In April 2014, the groups sued the EPA over delays in the planning process.

In June of 2016, the groups sued the EPA for failing to make a determination on a pollution-reduction plan.

Later in 2016, the groups sued to compel the EPA to decide whether the borough should be reclassified as seriously out of attainment with the Clean Air Act, which triggers stricter pollution controls.

A group known as the Fairbanks Air Quality Stakeholders Group has been discussing new pollution control measures, including registering all home heating devices, banning domestic and small commercial coal burning, prohibiting the sale of No. 2 heating oil, setting up a public wood-drying kiln, and establishing inspection requirements for people seeking an exemption from burn bans.

On Thursday, the Borough Assembly is holding a special meeting to discuss with the borough attorney legal issues surrounding implementation of the Home Heating Reclamation Act, the successful voter initiative that now prevents the borough from adopting and enforcing rules for home heating.

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7587. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.