FAIRBANKS — Registering all home heating devices and banning domestic and small commercial coal burning in Fairbanks and North Pole are among the ideas supported by a majority of the Fairbanks Air Quality Stakeholders Group on Friday.
Votes were taken, and a majority also favored prohibiting the sale of No. 2 heating oil, setting up a public wood-drying kiln and inspection requirements for people looking for an exemption from burn bans.
The votes are nonbinding. The task force met to determine where the group had consensus as it develops a public policy proposal for reducing smoke pollution.
The gathering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks was the group’s fourth meeting. A proposal is expected to be provided to state and Fairbanks North Star Borough leaders by the end of the year.
“We’re here because we have a huge public health problem,” Dan Brown, Fairbanks project manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 10 Office of Air and Waste, told the 30 or so stakeholders in attendance.
The EPA has given the borough until the end of next year to reduce particulate pollution found in emissions from chimneys and tailpipes. In North Pole, the pollution must be reduced by 80 percent.
The stakeholders group largely focused on home heating control measures including oil, coal and wood.
John Burns, former Alaska attorney general and now lawyer for the Golden Valley Electric Association, said any new control measures ought to be phased in slowly and monitored to assure their effectiveness.
He fears that a sense of urgency could cause local leaders to start throwing money at solutions that don’t pan out.
“The prudent resolution, I think, is to do it in a stepwise fashion,” he said.
Brown, the EPA regulator, pointed out that the problem is not new and the air has gotten worse. On cold days when the air is stagnant, smoke accumulates at ground level.
The pollution regulatory zone covering most of Fairbanks and North Pole was declared seriously out of attainment with the federal Clean Air Act in 2017.
“We’re 10 years into this. We are not making progress,” Brown said.
The stakeholders group includes environmentalists, business interests, people from the utilities, medical experts and representatives of local wood burners.
Teacher Mark Oppe is the regional representative for the North Pole area.
One of his chief concerns is the increased development in North Pole, which is preparing for thousands of new residents in connection with the military buildup at Eielson Air Force Base.
More homes in the area will increase emissions from tailpipes and chimneys.
“It looks like it is making a difficult situation even harder. I don’t know the answer to that,” he said.
North Pole residents are worried the community will bear the brunt of new smoke pollution control measures, he said.
“There are a lot of people who don’t believe the science, who don’t believe the numbers,” Oppe said.
Oppe thinks the burn bans should be less broad and more targeted to neighborhoods experiencing elevated levels of particulate pollution.
Jimmy Fox, a member of Citizens for Clean Air, a local group pressing for relief from smoke pollution, said he is optimistic about the work being conducted by the stakeholders group.
Pressure from the EPA to deal with the air pollution includes a potential loss of $37 million a year in federal highway assistance to Fairbanks.
“We’re at the edge of a cliff, and we‘re trying to cobble together a parachute,” Fox said. “I think things that the borough just didn’t have the courage to do or the wisdom to do, this group will recommend.”
Dave Turbovsky is a member of the stakeholders group representing wood burners. He said pollution controls are an emotional issue for a lot of people because it’s about what goes on in their homes.
Turbovsky can’t imagine not having a wood stove in his home. What if the power goes out?
The stakeholders group has been eye-opening, he said. He thought that people pressing for air pollution regulations opposed wood burning. He has changed his mind.
“Your personal freedom can’t come with a cost to your community,” he said. “It’s the same reason why you can’t drive 100 mph down Cushman Street. It’s the same as you can’t have smoke belching out of your chimney.”
Turbovsky wishes the federal and state governments had invested more money in reducing the pollution before the area became seriously out of compliance with the Clean Air Act.
He said he plans to vote against the Oct. 2 ballot measure aimed at ending the borough’s regulatory power over home heating. But he’s not sure how he will vote on the end product being created by the stakeholders group. He’s waiting to see the full proposal.
“I think the best way to continue to burn wood is to understand the impacts and be part of the clean-burning solution rather than ignoring the problem and blaming the borough,” Turbovsky said.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7587. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.