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Riled-up Air-quality Program Opponents Grill Borough Officials at Meeting in North Pole

Tim Ellis/KUAC

A Fairbanks North Star Borough-hosted meeting on air quality drew more than a hundred people in North Pole last night. The sometimes-tense meeting was intended to promote cooperation in reducing pollution from wood and coal burning, but many used the opportunity to criticize the borough’s air-quality program and express their frustration with trying to comply with it.

Borough Mayor Karl Kassel told an overflow crowd at the North Pole library Tuesday evening that after 10 years of increasingly bad wintertime air pollution in the Fairbanks-North Pole area, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is putting serious pressure on the borough to clear the air.

“And it’s going to get even worse if we don’t make progress,” he said in introductory remarks. “This is the beginning, not the end, of this trail with regulation from the EPA. And they don’t have an option, either. It’s in federal law.”

Kassel says that’s why the borough has begun imposing “burn bans,” that prohibit firing-up woodstoves and other so-called solid-fuel heating systems during air-quality alerts. And it’s why the borough has mailed nearly 160 citations this winter to residents who ignore or are unaware of the burn bans.

“We’re not enjoying this, any more than you are,” he said. “But we are trying to work with folks, because we do have to get the air cleaned up. It is a problem. It’s a health risk. And it is a big issue in this community. We’re off the charts for bad air. We’re the worst in North America. These aren’t modest numbers. And we need to make progress.”

The area’s worst air pollution usually occurs in and around North Pole. And it’s where much of the opposition to the borough’s air-quality program resides. So it didn’t take long for some members of the audience to begin hectoring Kassel and Air Quality manager Nick Czarnecki about what they say is an ill-conceived, unfair and poorly administered program.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Borough Air Quality Manager Nick Czarnecki tried to answer multiple questions from audience members. He acknowledged the borough is still working out some bugs in the borough's redoubled efforts to enforce the program.

“We’ve got a request in for another $4 million to come to town. We’re likely to get that. And so, we are changing out. … ” Kassel said, in an attempt to explain efforts to obtain more funding for the borough’s woodstove changeout program.

Just then, a member of the audience interrupted him in mid-sentence. “You’re still throwing money,” the man said. “Even if it ain’t borough money, you’re still throwing money at it!”

Kassel, clearly frustrated, shot back: “Can I finish?! Thank you!”

When he and Czarnecki opened up the discussion to questions from the audience, some suggested federal and local regulations should be modified for Alaskan communities. Gary Junk said the borough’s regulations don’t account for the harshest of the Interior’s winter conditions.

“I know that you folks have a provision for using our stoves to keep our homes warm during power outages,” Junk said. “What do you think is going to happen when we have three and four, five weeks of 40 below and colder, and ice fog? I guarantee you, you’ll make a criminal out of me and my home.”

Several in the audience said the sensors that the borough uses to monitor air quality are poorly located, in areas that skew the readings. Others complained about problems with the borough’s administration of the program, such as a citation one resident said he got that included a photo of someone else’s smokestack that was emitting excess particulates.

Czarnecki and Kassel said the Air Quality staff is still working out bugs in the program.

“As Mayor Kassel mentioned, this is a new program,” Czarnecki said, “and the enforcement has been stepped up this year, as opposed to what’s happened in previous years. So, there are going to be bumps along the road.”

"... I also think that the method and the process that we've been using with administration and the EPA is flawed for our community. And unless we get community buy-in, we're not going to get there."
– Jeanne Olson

Others in the audience, like Jeanne Olson, emphasized the importance of reducing air pollution because of the health threats it poses.

“I support clean air,” she said, “and I know that the science is sound. I’m a veterinarian and a scientist before that. I know this stuff is real. But, I also think that the method and the process that we’ve been using with administration and the EPA is flawed for our community. And unless we get community buy-in, we’re not going to get there.”

Olson said borough officials should make greater efforts to reach out to residents, through meetings like Tuesday’s, and one-on-one conversations. And she urged members of the audience to assume some of the responsibility to help solve the problem.

“And so what I’m asking from you guys is to come up with solutions,” she said. “And we need to form a community group again, not to bitch and complain – excuse my French – but to come up with solutions.”

Borough officials say they hope to conduct more outreach like Tuesday’s town hall in the near future.

Editor's note: An overview of the Fairbanks area's air-pollution problems and the borough's efforts to address the issue is available through a link on the borough's Air Quality Division website.    

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.