Community Perspective

A path forward on Fairbanks air quality

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation recently finalized its air quality plan, known as the Serious Statewide Implementation Plan, as required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to address fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution in the Fairbanks North Star Borough nonattainment area.

The DEC appreciates the time that Fairbanks and North Pole residents put into commenting on the draft plan, providing testimony at public hearings, meeting with us and providing suggestions.

Based on local feedback, DEC was able to tailor the plan to meet community needs and get us on a path to achieve the EPA’s air quality requirements within the next decade. DEC worked with the community to provide flexibility and encourage local approaches while still meeting federal rules to avoid sanctions such as reductions in federal highway funds. To that end, some parts of the plan will be implemented this year while other requirements will be delayed to provide time for businesses and individuals to plan and adjust.

The first change that you are likely to see will be lower thresholds for Stage 1 and Stage 2 burn curtailments, when burning wood or other materials is restricted within the area. We’ve made this change in an effort to reduce smoke in the air sooner to prevent violations of the air quality standards. We encourage you to go to DEC’s website (dec.alaska.gov) to sign up for air quality alert texts/emails so you know when these curtailments occur as well as to find applications for burn ban waivers.

Emission standards and installation requirements start for new wood heaters this month as well. This includes new requirements for registering wood heaters, such as wood stoves. Not all wood heaters must be registered, but if you take certain actions, such as buying a new wood heater, selling property that has a wood heater or applying for a burn ban waiver, you will need to register your wood heater. Accurate data on heating sources allows opportunities to better tailor programs for Fairbanks and North Pole as future plans are drafted to meet EPA requirements. This data also allows us to provide information to those who have older, high-emitting wood heaters on options for converting to cleaner devices.

While burning is already limited to dry wood within the area covered by the plan, in October 2021 there will be requirements that only dry wood be sold except under certain conditions. Starting in September 2022, cleaner fuel oil will be required to be used inside the nonattainment area to reduce levels of sulfate particulate. And by December 2024, all uncertified wood heaters, cordwood hydronic and coal heaters in the nonattainment area must be removed or replaced with cleaner-burning units.

DEC recently began working with the borough to develop the next EPA required update to the air quality plan, which must demonstrate a minimum of 5% reductions in PM 2.5 emissions each year. That plan will be available for public comment later this year, and we hope you will again take the time to provide feedback. Once the area is meeting the EPA’s air quality requirements, there will be opportunities to ease the control programs as long as the air quality standards can still be met.

Thanks to efforts that residents have been making, air quality has already improved over the past decade. However, we aren’t achieving EPA’s health standards yet. The difficulty is that weather inversions hold smoke close to the ground, causing fine particles in the air to go above health-based limits set by the EPA.

Choices you make each day in heating your home make a big difference collectively — to your health, the quality of air you breathe, and the quality of life in your neighborhood. By encouraging your friends and neighbors to burn cleanly, choose cleaner heating options, and continue to avoid burning during air quality alerts, we will meet our clean air goals within this upcoming decade.

Staff at DEC remain committed to working with the community to implement plans that work for Fairbanks and the North Pole area to reduce air pollution and achieve clean air goals.

Alice Edwards is air quality director at the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

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