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EPA Proposes Air Plan Actions

Dan Bross
Wood stove pipe at a Fairbanks area home.

The US Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to reject portions of a state plan to reduce Fairbanks North Pole area wintertime fine particulate pollution. It’s the latest step in a 14-year struggle to reign in emissions linked to serious health problems.

The Fairbanks/North Pole area was first designated as having a fine particulate pollution problem back in 2009, after the EPA tightened the air quality standard based on studies that linked breathing the tiny particles from combustion of wood, coal and oil, to health impacts, including premature death among those with heart or lung disease. Pollution reduction programs have lowered local fine particulate or PM 2.5 levels 50 percent since 2015 and the state must have a plan to cut them in half again to achieve the federal health standard by an October 2025 deadline.

“We think that the plan will make progress but it will not bring the area into compliance.”

EPA region 10 spokesperson Bill Dunbar says the latest state implementation plan or SIP addresses wood smoke pollution but falls short when it comes to sulfur dioxide emissions from coal and oil-fired power plants and boilers.

“Many of those plants don’t have any emissions controls at all, or the emissions controls that they have are sort of rudimentary.”    

Dunbar says the EPA wants re-consideration of power plant emissions controls as well as a switch to cleaner burning but more expensive ultra-low sulfur diesel for heating fuel.

“The state indicated that it was not feasible or economic to install what we call the best available control technology, and then the same thing with ultra-low sulfur diesel, the state has indicated that they feel ultra-low sulfur diesel is not available and not affordable, and EPA needs to see a better analysis.”

Jason Olds: “We don’t think the cost proposals that EPA is putting forward are correct, where we know the major issue is wood smoke.”  

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Air Quality director Jason Olds says the state will defend its plan.

“We think we have an avenue and an argument that’s supported by good science for why we should be able to keep the plan that we put forward, and not implement  both of those measures.”

The DEC attributes nearly 90 percent of local PM 2.5 to wood burning emissions. EPA grants have funded Fairbanks North Star Borough replacement of thousands of wood stoves with models certified as cleaner burning under an agency testing program the state found in 2021 to be easily manipulated, resulting in artificially low manufacturer emissions data.

“It suggests that we would be able to get better emissions reductions, an easier time getting to attainment than what is actually occurring.”   

Olds questions EPA’s proposed rejection of parts of the SIP, when it failed on a key tool to address the primary source of local emissions. A 60-day public comment period is underway on the EPA’s proposed actions, and the agency plans to hold a public meeting in Fairbanks in February.

Meanwhile, a federal judge ruled January 9th that the state can intervene in a lawsuit filed by the Fairbanks group Citizens for Clean Air against the EPA to force the federal agency to accept or reject the State Implementation Plan, after missing a June 2022 deadline to do so.