FAIRBANKS — Steps are being taken to transfer smoke pollution control efforts from the Fairbanks North Star Borough to the state, but there are still multiple unknowns.
A meeting is planned later this month in Fairbanks among local, state and federal air-quality regulators to plot a path forward, borough Mayor Karl Kassel said Friday.
With Tuesday’s passage of Proposition 4, the voters — again — removed the borough’s power to regulate home heating, which is believed to be the biggest cause of wintertime particulate pollution spikes. But the borough is still expected to reduce the pollution under the federal Clean Air Act by Dec. 31, 2019.
The borough, following passage of Proposition 4, now has no plans to call air pollution alerts, which trigger burn bans, this winter and has suspended other programs, including the wood stove changeout program and waivers from burn bans, according to a Friday news release.
“We are going to work through all of this,” Kassel said in an interview. “We are doing what we can to clean the air within the legal parameters.”
The state is prepared to take over calling air pollution alerts, according to Barbara Trost, program manager for air-quality monitoring for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
How the air alerts will be communicated and enforced are among the many unknowns.
“We have a forecaster here in the office. We have the same alert model,” Trost said. “The hope is to have as seamless as possible of a transition.”
What the borough is doing
The voter-approved Home Heating Reclamation Act goes into effect once the election is certified by the Borough Assembly, which is expected Oct. 25.
Kassel said he is moving forward as if the new law is already in place.
“I absolutely support the will of the voters,” he said.
One of Kassel’s main concerns is the boundaries by which the state will be imposing its air pollution curtailment program. The borough created an air-quality control zone to enact burn bans. Kassel said he is concerned that the state will use the larger federally recognized air quality nonattainment area.
“We don’t want to see the regulated area expand to the nonattainment area,” he said.
The borough is gathering data using particulate pollution sniffer vehicles to make the case for the smaller regulatory area, Kassel said.
The state will now decide whether residents with economic hardship or no other way to heat their homes than wood stoves will continue to get waivers from burn bans, Kassel said.
The borough would like to continue administering the wood stove changeout program, but it’s not clear whether that is possible under the new law, he said.
The Fairbanks Air Quality Stakeholders Group, a task force of professionals from different local sectors selected by the three local mayors, will continue its work, according to Michelle Ohnesorge, project manager at the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp.
The group will make recommendations for speeding up progress in reducing particulate pollution.
New control measures being discussed by the group touch all manner of home heating, including coal, wood and oil.
“The stakeholder group will carry on. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is committed to listening to this group’s recommendations,” Ohnesorge said.
The next meeting of the borough-funded group is scheduled for Oct. 17 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Ohnesorge said the group is close to finalizing its recommendations.
Activities at the state level
The head of air quality for the DEC has been on personal leave, so a lot of questions remain unanswered.
The borough air pollution alert system involved a multi-tiered way of notifying people that included a website, text messages and electronic signs at heavily traveled intersections.
Trost said she did not know how notifications by the state would be handled but said “we are going to continue working with the community.”
“We have to figure out in terms of our system, what we can do,” she said. “We hope that people won’t see a whole lot of difference.”
On enforcement, Trost said, “There is really not that much I can tell you at this point.”
When voters removed the borough’s power to regulate home heating previously, the state’s enforcement tool was filing a nuisance abatement order in court.
Only one civil case has been filed by the state to force compliance with particulate pollution regulations in the Fairbanks area.
In 2013, the state filed a court order against Andrew and Gloria Straughn to shut down two outdoor wood boilers near Woodriver Elementary School.
The couple owned rental properties near the school that were the focus of 91 complaints to the DEC over five years.
“DEC really wants to work with people and try to achieve compliance in a collaborative way,” department spokeswoman Laura Achee said in an email. “Compliance letters and compliance assistance are where DEC starts the conversation. The more formal processes are used as a last resort if DEC is not able to come to agreement with people.”
The federal government
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the Clean Air Act provides no exemption for a community to avoid complying with air pollution standards.
Suzanne Skadowski, who is based in the agency’s Region 10 office in Seattle, said in an email that “once designated, nonattainment areas must work through the attainment process as described in the Clean Air Act.”
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7587. Follow her on Twitter:@FDNMborough.