Fairbanks mayor takes bite out of air quality plan

Posted: Friday, December 31, 2010

FAIRBANKS - Fairbanks mayor Luke Hopkins and the city's Air Pollution Control Commission reluctantly amended and approved a version of an air-quality improvement plan that sets goals to reduce pollution, but gives the city no power to enforce it.

That's because voters approved a measure in October that prohibits any enforcement against home heating devices and turns over air quality control to the state, the Daily News-Miner reports.

Fairbanks has a problem with pollution, specifically toxic particulate matter. The EPA has put Fairbanks on notice to reduce particulate levels by 2014.

With the changes made to the air quality improvement plan on Wednesday, Hopkins and Air Pollution Control Commission chairman Charles Machetta said they doubt the city will now be able to meet the EPA's deadline.

"It's a pretty toothless document," Machetta said. "The sentiment of the commission is, we hated the document, we hated what happened with Proposition A (the ballot measure) and our hands are completely tied."

Since North Star Borough voters eliminated fines for pollution-causing heating devices, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation has taken up the responsibility. They can use civil actions, instead of fines, to enforce pollution standards.

"We had an air quality plan passed. We barely entered winter, to see if it would have an effect on the large emissions we have in our airshed, when voters said No thanks' in October," Hopkins said.

Smoke from inefficient wood stoves is believed to be the No. 1 contributor to the problem that has put Fairbanks on the Environmental Protection Agency's list of communities violating fine particle pollution standards.

As home heating oil prices have skyrocketed, more Fairbanks residents are using wood. Emissions from increasing wood burning include tiny but toxic particulates.

The particulate matter consists of tiny individual grains just 2.5 micrometers or less in size. They lodge deep in the lungs and can cause respiratory problems.

The North Star Borough scales air quality into six levels, with level one being "good" and level six being "hazardous."

Earlier this month, pollution levels began rising and the borough issued an advisory, warning young people, the elderly and people with heart and lung problems to limit prolonged exertion. The air quality rose to level four - "unhealthy."

"Do I think it's the best?" Hopkins said. "No. But I don't think we can get to the best anymore."

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