Fairbanks, North Pole air quality

An inversion traps air pollution in this January 2015 file photo

Smoke pollution has again landed the Fairbanks North Star Borough on a list of the cities with the dirtiest air in the United States as deemed by the American Lung Association.

The dubious distinction comes as the state announces its intent to release a new draft clean air plan for Fairbanks and North Pole for public comment next month.

The goal of the new plan will be to reduce particulate pollution by 5 percent a year, according to a Wednesday news release by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

The lung association’s “State of the Air” 2019 report came out this week with the association announcing in its news release that “Alaska has some of the worst air quality in the nation.” The Matanuska-Susitna Borough also made one of the lung association’s three dirty air lists.

The organization ranks cities based on short-term particulate pollution, year-round particulate pollution, and ozone.

The Fairbanks borough ranked No. 3 for year-round particulate pollution — an improvement from last year when the borough ranked No. 1. Fairbanks also landed the No. 3 spot on the list of cities with short-term particle spikes.

"I think the key takeaway is we are making progress," Borough Mayor Bryce Ward said at a news conference Wednesday. "We do have a lot of work that needs to be done."

Only the California cities of Bakersfield and Fresno-Madera-Hanford are considered by the lung association to have particle pollution that is worse than that of the Fairbanks borough.

Fairbanks was not on the ozone list.

The annual rankings by the lung association are based on data collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough ranked No. 21 in the nation for short-term particulate pollution.

Pollution in Fairbanks and North Pole spikes on cold winter days when chimneys are puffing out smoke and the air is stagnant, according to federal, state and local air quality regulators. Smoke from wood burning has been blamed as the primary culprit.

“Particle pollution is made of soot or tiny particles that come from coal-fired power plants, diesel emissions, wildfires and wood-burning devices,” said Marge Stoneking, executive director for the American Lung Association in Alaska, in a prepared statement. “These particles are so small that they can lodge deep in the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, and can even be lethal.”

The bad air has caused environmental groups to sue the EPA in an effort to force the agency to enforce the federal Clean Air Act.

The borough faces a federal deadline of Dec. 31, 2019, to dramatically lower particulate pollution or face sanctions.

Officials with both the state and the borough say the deadline won't be met.

"The agencies acknowledge that the area cannot demonstrate attainment in 2019, the current federal deadline for meeting the ambient air quality standard," the DEC news release states. "The SIP (State Implementation Plan) will reflect that reality and acknowledge the need for additional time to bring the area into attainment, but will not be as focused on a formal 5-year extension request as had been previously planned. Instead, the serious SIP will identify the need under the Clean Air Act for the state to develop a plan that will reduce emissions 5 percent per year into the future."

The DEC is aiming for the week of May 13 to make public a draft SIP for the Fairbanks borough's fine particulate matter (PM2.5) nonattainment area. The document will be available on the DEC website, according to the news release.

The agency is planning a series of meetings, starting with the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce, to gather public input.

The DEC news release states that the agency is reviewing suggestions for cleaning the air made by a stakeholders group last year to include mandatory removal of coal-only heaters from homes and small businesses, registration of commercial and residential home-heating devices on property tax notices, mandatory removal of uncertified solid-fuel burning devices and a boroughwide shift from No. 2 fuel oil to No. 1 oil.

Other suggestions include increased enforcement during burn bans, providing the DEC the authority to write tickets for bad burning and allowing regulators to use infrared cameras.

Under the Clean Air Act, the SIP must include the best available control measures for PM2.5.

The stakeholder group of professionals from Fairbanks and North Pole spent months last year analyzing various pollution control measures that have been implemented in other communities.

“Local solutions are critical to improving air quality and we look forward to engaging with the community on the draft plan and associated regulations in the coming months,” DEC Commissioner Jason Brune said in a prepared statement. “It is our goal to address this public health concern and meet the federal Clean Air Act requirements while developing a final plan that can best address the local air pollution problem.”

A tentative schedule of events provided by the DEC gives a SIP release date of May 14-16. The plan will be presented to the Chamber of Commerce at its business luncheon on May 14.

On May 16, the Borough Assembly will hold a joint work session with the Air Pollution Control Commission.

Formal public hearings are planned for June 25 and 26 at the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel and at the borough administrative center.

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