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Fearing another winter of toxic air and a lawsuit, Fairbanks officials work on solutions

Suzanna Caldwell

Winter is coming and for residents of Alaska's second largest city that could mean another winter of breathing toxic air.

It's been almost a year since Alaska missed the federal Environmental Protection Agency's December 2012 deadline for submitting a plan detailing what steps the state will take to help the Fairbanks North Star Borough clean up its increasingly toxic air, considering every contributor from power plants to vehicle emissions. That plan, known as a “SIP”, is mandated under the federal Clean Air Act.

While the borough has worked to help clean up its air with education and wood stove change-out programs, a question remains whether it's done enough.

At the end of August, the Center for Biological Diversity filed formal notice of intent to sue the EPA for its failure to enforce Clean Air Act standards in the Fairbanks area, as well as in six other states.

While filing a notice of intent (NOI) against the federal government is not uncommon for the Center for Biological Diversity (it files four to eight a month), the development reflects the concern and frustration of many Fairbanks residents. The adverse health affects of microscopic-sized particulate pollution has been well documented, with risks ranging from asthma to heart attacks, stroke and even reduced IQs. With the borough stripped of its authority to regulate air quality in the region thanks to a voter referendum last year, advocates are looking to possible legal action to make sure residents’ health concerns are addressed.

The NOI is an initial step toward that. Jonathan Evans, toxics and endangered species campaign director at the center, said the EPA has 60 days to respond by taking action. If it doesn’t, the center will sue.

“We think the law is clear, and they have a duty to act,” Evans said from San Francisco Thursday. “We're hopeful we can reach a positive outcome.”

State implementation plan

The NOI is the latest chapter in the state's effort to submit a state plan.

The notices often act as a poke to government agencies, forcing a second look at their own regulations to see if they’re being enforced properly. Often, Evans said, agencies will respond quickly, making legal action unnecessary.

On Thursday, EPA spokeswoman Hanady Kader said it was too early to predict how her agency would respond.

“Not much we can say in terms of the implications,” she said.

One issue is how legal action will affect the timeline in which Fairbanks will need to clean up its air.

Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins said that current date of 2013 is unlikely to be met, though interested parties are hopeful the SIP will be signed by the lieutenant governor sometime in spring 2014.

Hopkins said the borough, state and EPA are working closely to devise a fair way to deal with air quality, and there's concern the NOI could start a “sanction clock” which would begin the process of imposing harsh restrictions on business owners and area residents. For example, businesses looking to move into the area would have to prove they will offset any emissions by a steep 2-to-1 ratio. Local residents could face burn bans or be told they cannot drive in some of the mostly highly polluted areas.

Last month, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy visited Fairbanks. Hopkins said she expressed a willingness to work with the community instead of imposing the limitations.

“We're all working together and she expects a plan to come forward,” Hopkins said. That was a sentiment Cindy Heil, air program manager for the state of Alaska, echoed. There's no point in implementing programs or restrictions that only add financial burdens for citizens already dealing with the high cost of energy.

“Everyone is trying to address the problem as quickly as we can,” she said. “But we need to do it thoroughly. You don't want to cause more problems somewhere else.”

Borough working on plans

In 2010, Julie Rafferty's family decided to take advantage of a borough program that paid for some of the costs of replacing residents’ wood stoves with more efficient ones. As the cost of heating fuel soared, she figured why not take advantage of the program?

While she had noticed increasingly bad air quality in the Dale Road neighborhood where she's lived 23 years, Rafferty didn’t realize the full extent of the problem until last winter’s meetings. The area is one of the borough's “hot spots” where air pollution is often so bad, Rafferty described it as “driving into a cloud.”

In an effort to deal with that, the borough instituted an enhanced wood stove change-out program this year that focused on Dale Road and areas of North Pole that consistently have some of the worst pollution in the region.

However, only a few dozen people took advantage of the program initially. Borough Air Quality Director Glenn Miller wrote in an email that extensions to the program – which has been extended through Sept. 30 from an original end date in July – have helped to boost participation.

“Historically, August and September have been the most popular months for change outs,” he wrote in an email. “I guess after a long winter and even longer spring, folks just didn’t want to think about wood stoves when the weather finally warmed up.”

But air quality advocates think the lack of participation stems from a poor understanding of the extent of the problem.

“You have to go to a meeting, read the scientific report, and educate yourself to understand its magnitude,” Rafferty wrote in an email. “If you don't perceive there's a problem there's nothing to propel you to change.”

Looking to education

Miller said multiple meetings are planned over the next few months to educate residents on air quality programs. The citizen's budget-review committee will look at the air quality program on Sept. 30, and the department of environmental conservation, EPA and local air quality planners will provide an update to the borough assembly on Oct. 3.

Expect plenty of opportunities for public comment as well, according to Alice Edwards, director for the state's division of air quality. Both changes to regulations as well as the entire SIP will begin rolling out in the next month through the department of environmental conservation.

This winter, the borough will do more education on wet wood, TV ads and numerous public sessions and open houses on education on pollution, Hopkins said.

And while Hopkins recognizes the critics, he sees the pollution issue as a public-health risk. He said he's been asked in the past about a direct link to death from air pollution. That's not the issue.

“Have you been in the hospital? Maybe no, but your neighbor has,” he said. “How many have died? That's not what we’re talking about here. It's about accepting the science.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com