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Proposition passage may end Fairbanks stove exchange program

Posted: October 17, 2012 - 12:01am

FAIRBANKS — As temperatures drop below freezing and snow starts to pile up, the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s wood stove exchange program has been put on hold and could be stopped completely because of the passage of Proposition 3.

The proposition will bar the borough from regulating air pollution from home heating devices in any way when results of the Oct. 2 election are certified at the end of the month. In reviewing the ballot language, the borough administration found the exchange program contains key elements that conflict with the initiative.

Under the program, residents are eligible to receive as much as $2,500 in cash to replace their indoor stoves with stoves approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

They’re eligible for as much as $3,000 to remove a stove.

The program relies on several requirements to ensure the money spent will result in less pollution. It limits the kinds of stoves that can be installed and prohibits those who participate in an exchange or removal from installing any other stoves for a set time period. None of those restrictions will be valid under Proposition 3, borough Mayor Luke Hopkins said.

The measure reads: “The borough shall not, in any way, regulate, prohibit, curtail, nor issue fines or fees associated with, the sale, distribution, or operation of heating appliances or any type of combustible fuel.”

“It’s our opinion, because of language in Proposition 3, that we won’t be able to continue the program with restrictions on it,” Hopkins said. “The language is very specific that the borough shall not restrict in any way.”

Removing the restrictions to save the program isn’t an cut-and-dry task either, said the borough’s air quality manager, Jim Conner. Without restrictions, Conner said the borough would be spending money blindly.

“The initiative says we cannot restrict in anyway what people put into their house. The only way that we were legally and legitimately proving we were cleaning the air was because we were able to limit what people put back in,” he said. “If we’re unable, then there’s no air quality benefit that we can prove to the Environmental Protection Agency, so we would just be throwing our money away.”

The exchange program is funded by a $3 million state grant, which comes with limitations.

Hopkins said the borough is asking the state to clarify the grant language to see if a program without regulations would be acceptable. But he said he was doubtful.

Without regulations, “we don’t know what those people will be doing with their stoves once they get them,” he said. “They could get it and put it on a yard sale and sell it. Do we just want to give money away to people and have no assurance that it’s being spent wisely? My answer to that is no.”

If the state finds a regulation-free wood stove exchange program is unacceptable, Hopkins said, the borough likely would need to ask the Legislature to reappropriate the money with looser requirements.

While the borough’s air quality department is still accepting applications to exchange a wood stove, it has ceased processing them. People have until Oct. 19 to apply for a removal.

Another rarely used element of the program helps pay for borough residents to repair existing devices. Hopkins said that will be untouched.

Proposition 3, sponsored by state Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, passed by a margin of nearly 7 percent. Wilson, who is running for re-election this fall, called the borough’s reading of the rules “ridiculous.” She said she believes people would properly use the program, achieving cleaner air, without any regulations.

“This proves the borough administration does not understand the economics of an upgrade program,” she said in an email. “If you offer someone a new heating appliance that is cleaner and more efficient, it is in the recipient’s best interest to use that efficient appliance because it saves them money. There is no financial incentive, for anyone, to sell or reuse older stoves when newer models are available at no cost.”

She said the assembly should amend the program, possibly making it into a voucher program. She went on to call the borough’s actions politically motivated.

Hopkins, who was a vocal opponent of Proposition 3, said he’s working within the law set out by her initiative and said Wilson’s comments weren’t constructive.

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