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FAIRBANKS - Alaska's second largest city is facing an air quality problem, again.
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Beginning Monday, new federal minimums for fine particulate matter go into effect.
Officials in the North Star Borough are bracing for what could be a long, expensive ordeal similar to the one it faced more than 20 years ago with carbon monoxide that resulted in the current vehicle emissions program.
"We knew this was going to put us in a bad situation," said Glenn Miller, director of the borough's transportation department and former head of the air quality division.
One reason particulate levels could be increasing is that more Fairbanks area residents are burning wood to offset the high price of home heating fuel, according to experts.
In September, the EPA lowered the violation threshold for fine particulate matter produced by burning wood, oil, gasoline and diesel fuel, from 65 to 35 micrograms per cubic meter over a 24-hour period.
Fairbanks' daily particulate level has exceeded 35 micrograms 29 days this calendar year - 15 in January, two in February, nine in November and three so far in December. Last year, there were 25 days the particulate level would have exceeded the new limit.
"It's a matter of when, not if" the borough will violate the new standard, said air quality specialist Jim Conner.
Fairbanks routinely violates the particulate level standard in the summer months due to wildfire smoke but a provision in the EPA rules allow for natural events.
A city is allowed two human-caused violations a year before it faces the possibility of being classified as a "non-attainment area." Once that happens, the state and borough must come up with a plan on how to bring particulate levels into compliance and submit it to the EPA.
The borough faced a similar issue in the 1970s and early 80s, but that time it was carbon monoxide, Miller said. New EPA standards forced the borough to establish a vehicle emissions program to meet EPA standards that remains in place today.
"This is 25 years ago all over," said Miller. "Years ago we focused on carbon monoxide; now it seems like the focus has switched to particulates."
Borough officials have already conceded that Fairbanks will be designated a non-attainment area and are in the process of formulating a plan to address it, said Conner.
"Right now we're trying to figure out how to figure it out," he said.