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Fairbanks could use a clear discussion on air pollution

Dermot Cole
Smoke from the Stuart Creek 2 wildfire created hazy conditions in Fairbanks this summer. Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images

FAIRBANKS -- Shortly before a contentious hearing on local air quality earlier this week, a caller to a local radio show said that one solution to our problems is to “tar and feather those women at DEC.” He repeated the “tar-and-feather” comment about the Department of Environmental Conservation staff four times.

The two elected officials featured on the radio show -- Borough Assembly member Michael Dukes, who hosted the program, and Rep. Tammie Wilson -- should have used the opportunity on “Tammie Tuesday” to call for a reasonable and civil discussion; they didn’t.

The only direct response to the repeated tar-and-feather comments came from Wilson. “Wait a minute, it’s not just women doing it,” she told the caller. “The commissioner’s a man.”

That was the wrong response, but it is in keeping with the approach that Wilson and Dukes have taken. Their continuing campaign against the clean-air regulations, as I’ve noted here before, falsely characterizes a set of minor proposals as an attempt to ban wood stoves and to keep people from burning wood.

But there is no political support on the local level or the state level to ban wood stoves in Fairbanks or to keep people from burning wood.

I think there is political support for the idea that when air pollution levels escalate to harmful levels, some limits on burning for those who have alternative heat sources are acceptable. That’s not the same as banning wood stoves.

Who's freezing in the dark?

It’s easy to get people fired up when you leave the impression that freezing in the dark is the only outcome of a proposal. That's not what is going on here.

We need to have a discussion about air pollution founded on facts, not exaggeration, recognizing that there is a balance between health and heat. There is also a balance between someone's right to burn and someone else's right to breathe.

Wilson has argued in the past that there should be no limits on what people burn and that regulating home heating is government at its worst. I disagree.

On most winter days, when the air is stagnant, a brown haze covers the flatlands of Fairbanks and North Pole. You can smell it in many neighborhoods. People at the highest risk are children, the elderly and those with asthma and other conditions.

State proposes several changes

An existing state regulation contains this sentence: “A person may not operate a wood-fired heating device in an area for which the department has declared an air quality episode under 18 AAC 50.245.” Under that rule, if pollution reaches harmful levels and the state declares an episode, no one is allowed to burn wood.

To create some flexibility, the state has proposed changing it to: “The department may prohibit operation of wood-fired hearing devices in an area for which the department has declared an air quality episode under 18 AAC 50.245.”

Another part of the proposal would specify what levels of pollution would lead to an air alert declaration, an air warning or an air emergency, the three types of air quality episodes:

• The emergency is the highest level, requiring 351 micrograms per cubic meter for 24 hours. We have seen those levels in the past only during severe conditions created by summer wildfires. At that level, the only sensible thing is to stay indoors or leave town.

An air warning would be declared at 251 micrograms for 24 hours, which is also an exceptionally high level rated hazardous by the EPA.

• An air alert would take place at 56 micrograms per cubic meter. The Environmental Protection Agency puts the national air standard at 35 micrograms per cubic meter for 24 consecutive hours, a level established to protect children, the elderly and infirm.

The DEC said it chose to set the air warning level at 56 micrograms for 24 hours because that is the level at which air conditions are deemed unhealthy for the entire population. The hourly readings often are higher than that, particularly in North Pole and near Fairbanks International Airport.

A future public review will set what voluntary and mandatory actions would be called for at each level. The DEC is proposing hearings and a public review to work out those details in the months ahead.

It would have been better for the state to include proposed sanctions or voluntary actions with each level of air episode in this proposal. That would have helped clarify this situation right now, but the department says that work isn't finished.

“Some options could include: subdividing the non-attainment area into smaller areas where potential episodes could be called with response options specifically tailored to what is reasonable and effective in that area,” the department said in October.

The rules would also include establishing a temperature range “where a wood heater curtailment would risk personal safety for people and property damage and would not be considered a reasonable response option.”

People who believe that no regulation is acceptable will be unhappy with rules on the quality of fuel, the quality of stoves sold in stores or the amount of smoke that can be produced. Others will see some limits as a necessary balancing act in which the economy of wood heat is important, but so is air quality. The sooner the state puts specific proposals on the table the better.

Another aspect of this that needs to be examined is the consequence -- in terms of health, federal sanctions and economic development -- of not improving the air.

The real threat to our future is that the pollution in the stagnant air will lead to economic stagnation. The longer this goes on, the worse it is for Fairbanks.

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcole.