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As winter sets in, air quality issues waft across Interior Alaska

As the days are growing colder, you may have noticed that the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) just issued our first air alerts of the season. We at DEC would like to provide the residents of Fairbanks and North Pole an update on our efforts to improve your air quality.

For those of you that are new to the area, you will notice that air quality can be significantly impacted by wood smoke on “inversion days” when it is cold and air is not circulating. On these days, residents are not allowed to have fires in their houses unless they have received a NOASH waiver (No Other Alternative Source of Heat). Such waivers can be applied for by visiting burnwaiver.org. You can sign up now to receive air alerts by texts or email by going to airalertstexts.org, and we recently received grant funding to build signs on the Richardson and Steese highways to help inform residents of these alerts.

DEC worked with the borough and a local stakeholder group on an air quality plan to help reduce pollution and meet the EPA’s standards. This included regulations and other measures, some of which are phasing in. This winter is the implementation of the requirement for wood sellers to supply only dry “seasoned” wood, which will significantly help decrease harmful wood smoke. Next winter, beginning in September 2022, residents in the impacted areas will be required to switch from diesel #2 to diesel #1 for home heating fuel.

Another element of the plan is the requirement that 25-year old stoves that do not meet the cleanest standards be replaced with newer stoves during real estate transactions or by December 2024, whichever comes first. Thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) targeted airshed grants, many of you have been able to switch out your old wood stoves for new, (what we all hope will be) cleaner burning stoves through DEC’s partnership with the Fairbanks North Star Borough. This program has switched out more than 3,000 stoves over the last decade. As wood smoke is the root cause of the air quality issues Fairbanks and North Pole residents face, this program was thought to be making significant strides in decreasing harmful wood smoke.

However, through some impressive sleuth work by DEC staff, we have recently found that some of these new stoves that purport to be cleaner burning, are in fact, not improving air quality at all. Sadly, the EPA has dropped the ball in its oversight of stove manufacturers and the labs testing their devices. In fact, EPA’s requirement to both certify and audit new stoves literally went up in smoke during the Obama Administration.

In partnership with other states, DEC has taken on the task of checking the EPA program to ensure that the test results provided by wood stove manufacturers are accurate and repeatable. What we’ve found is not encouraging. One of the testing methods has been found to be unreliable, data is often incomplete, tests perform inconsistently, and there is zero confidence in the certification program as a whole. Indeed, some of these new “cleaner” wood stoves are in fact new “dirtier” wood stoves. Recently, an audit of the EPA program has commenced and congressional inquiries are attempting to take the EPA to task for failing to accurately audit and certify woodstoves.

We at DEC remain committed to improving air quality in Fairbanks and North Pole while at the same time providing certainty to the residents as well as the distributors of woodstoves that what is being sold will indeed improve air quality. Since DEC cannot depend on EPA, DEC maintains a list of devices that are allowed to be sold within the nonattainment area. We have met with the small businesses who want certainty as they buy inventories of stoves, fearing they may not be able to sell them if they ultimately get cut from the list. We have assured them that we will provide sufficient notice when stoves are removed from the approved list.

In another disappointing turn of events, EPA is demanding additional studies by Fort Wainwright, Doyon Utilities, UAF, Aurora Power, and GVEA on how they can reduce their impacts on air quality. Potential costs to these facilities could exceed $100 million with little to no improvement in air quality. Meanwhile, DEC modeling has shown that with the plan that we’ve put forward, we can reach attainment by 2024 without more expensive upgrades to these facilities.

EPA’s double standard is both laughable and unfair. At the end of the day, EPA needs to hold itself to the same standard with woodstove oversight that it is holding the community, state and industrial facilities. To not do so demonstrates EPA’s lack of understanding of, and commitment to addressing, the root cause of the air quality issues in Fairbanks and North Pole while ignoring the challenges and sacrifices local residents have undertaken to improve air quality.

Jason Brune is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

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