FAIRBANKS — People taking part in a town hall meeting on air quality and burn restrictions packed the North Pole Branch Library conference room to the point of standing room only, leaving almost two dozen people craning their necks outside to see and hear the conversation.
Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Karl Kassel hosted the event, which, at times, devolved into finger pointing, accusations of dishonesty and frequent speaking over one another. But for the most part, even with emotions high, people remained coolheaded in the hot, crowded room.
Nearly 2.5 hours of questions and answers followed a brief introduction by the administration, during which Kassel said new, stricter regulations are the result of 10 years without air-quality progress. The fluid situation will continue to evolve, he said.
“This (burn ban) does restrict some freedoms,” Kassel acknowledged.
While many residents voiced concerns and grievances — including feeling betrayed, disregarded and criminalized by the borough — the majority of commenters wanted to be part of the solution.
Two of the most common themes were disparities between borough and Environmental Protection Agency regulations, and residents still being subjected to burn bans, even after precisely following borough instructions.
Mark Middleton of North Pole said he used his own money to buy an EPA certified stove and only burns wood dried for multiple years, but he’s still subject to burn restrictions.
“There is no way out for those of us who have invested our own money, our own time, and there has to be a recourse,” he said.
Middleton could apply for a waiver from stage one burn bans, but he refuses to give the borough his information. “It’s an intrusion into personal rights,” he said. Middleton also believes that car exhaust and power plant emissions are a bigger part of the problem that need to be addressed.
Another common comment was that the borough’s wood-stove restrictions are more stringent than the EPAs. This has resulted not just in confusion, but catching some burners in limbo; they don’t qualify for a waiver because their stove doesn’t burn clean enough, but they also don’t qualify for the exchange program because their stove is EPA certified.
Single mother Jennifer Willeford was caught in the stove limbo. For years she used an EPA certified wood stove, but when she applied for a stage one waiver she found out it didn't meet borough standards. But because it was technically EPA certified, she also didn't qualify for the wood stove exchange program.
Eventually she used a credit card to purchase a new wood stove, allowing her to get a waiver.
“I didn’t really have any options,” she said. “Old furnaces and idling cars are a bigger problem than heating a 900 square-foot home with a wood stove,” she added.
Kassel said smoothing out differences between EPA and borough regulations is just one area where work continues. Toward the end of the meeting, conversations turned to how residents and the borough can help each other.
Many people, including Greg Corbett, seemed pleased to hear the one-on-one conversations. “I think it’s good. It’s getting the information out there to us, which is important,” he said.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to correctly reflect the sequence of events in which Jennifer Willeford purchased a new wood stove to receive a stage one waiver.
Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510. Follow him on Twitter @FDNMcity.