Fairbanks, North Pole air quality

An inversion traps air pollution in this January 2015 file photo

FAIRBANKS — The Borough Assembly hosted an unprecedented meeting Tuesday that included 16 military and municipal leaders to discuss ideas for reducing smoke pollution.

State air quality officials warned the leaders that households and the five power plants in the Fairbanks North Star Borough face new requirements to reduce harmful particulate pollution PM2.5.

“Unfortunately, we are not here as a bearer of good news,” Denise Koch, director of air quality for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, told members of the Borough Assembly, the Fairbanks City Council, the North Pole City Council, the borough Air Pollution Control Commission, North Pole Mayor Bryce Ward, Borough Mayor Karl Kassel, Eielson Air Force Base commander Col. Chad BonDurant and Fort Wainwright commander Col. Sean Fisher.

The DEC officials briefed the military and civilian leaders on parts of a plan for lowering particulate emissions by a federal deadline of Dec. 31, 2019.

Potential new chimney stack filters at power plants are estimated to cost $54 million for the five power plants, according to the DEC.

A list of 71 control measures gleaned from other communities dealing with PM2.5 has been winnowed to 14, officials said. Under the federal Clean Air Act, the borough is expected to act on the 14 measures or offer alternatives.

Nick Czarnecki, director of air quality for the borough, called for organizing a broad community stakeholder group to work through the list. In a brief slide presentation, he showed a picture of a polar bear putting its head in the snow.

“It is really important that we cannot ignore this issue anymore,” Czarnecki said. “Ignoring the issue at this point in the game is basically going to mean that you have no say in what happens.”

The 14 potential control measures are onerous, Czarnecki said.

The list includes registering heating devices, requiring ultra-low sulfur fuel, limits on wood stoves in new houses, inspection warrants, a wider ban on hydronic heaters and increasing the downtown steam heating system.

“It is going to be difficult,” Czarnecki said. “We can’t just have the assembly doing this. This would require buy-in from the entire community.”

Local leaders asked questions about what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expects, the state-operated air quality monitoring program and the emerging state air pollution control plan, known as the State Implementation Plan.

State air quality officials are hoping to offer a draft plan for public comment later this year. Parts of the plan, described as preliminary drafts, are available on the DEC website at bit.ly/2JiymKG.

The plan will need to demonstrate progress in decreasing PM2.5, officials said.

Local officials expressed concern that some of the potential control measures could result in worse air quality.

For example, if residents are required to use ultra-low sulfur fuel oil, which costs about 40 cents more than regular diesel home heating oil, more people could turn to heating with wood, which has been shown to be the largest contributor to the PM2.5 problem.

“How sensitive are people to these price differences? At what point do you push people to burn wood? That is still a question that we are looking at,” Koch said.

Cindy Heil, DEC air program manager, cautioned municipal leaders from loosening local smoke pollution rules. Voters will have the opportunity to do so in October when they address a ballot question aimed at stripping the borough of the power to regulate home heating.

Heil said local action reducing current smoke pollution control measures would result in more rules imposed by the EPA.

“I think it is really important that you guys understand that,” she said.

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