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EPA Issues Final Air Plan Action

Wood stove pipe on a Fairbanks area home.
Dan Bross
Wood stove pipe on a Fairbanks area home.

(Fairbanks, Ak.) The US Environmental Protection Agency has announced final action on a state plan to improve Fairbanks North Pole area wintertime air quality.

The agency’s final so called “partial disapproval” of the state air quality plan for the Fairbanks North Pole non-attainment area is the latest step in a long running back and forth between federal, state and local officials to reduce fine particulate pollution.

EPA Region 10 spokesperson Bill Dunbar says the action does not include a state and locally contested switch to more expensive ultra-low sulfur diesel heating oil.

“Ultimately came to the conclusion that indeed ultra-low sulfur diesel is just not cost effective or at this point available enough.”

Dunbar says the agency is also re-evaluating proposed new sulfur dioxide emission controls for local coal fired power plants. Dunbar says updated modelling has changed the understanding of SO2 emissions and the formation of PM 2.5 particulates.

“Indicates that maybe sulfur dioxide isn’t as much of a problem, isn’t really creating the amount of particulate matter that the state and EPA initially thought.”

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation air quality program manager Nick Czarnecki says the state agency is working on additional analysis that shows the controls aren’t needed and will be among issues addressed in an amended plan.

“We have to go back and fine tune the plan a little bit. Come out with a little more stronger control measures maybe and the state will be coming out with a proposed plan and there will be time for public comment on that sometime this spring or early summer.”

Both Czarnecki and Dunbar highlight progress already made to address local wintertime fine particulate pollution, but it needs to drop in half again to meet a federal Clean Air Act standard. Dunbar says the EPA’s latest targeted airshed grant for the Fairbanks North Star Borough will continue support for a long running program that pays for the upgrade or replacement of the primary source of local fine particulate pollution: wood stoves.

“For people to be able to convert from burning wood to liquid fuels, but also for the first time these grant monies will be available to expand the availability of natural gas in the borough and we think that that’s going to be a game changer.”

The EPA will work with the boroughs’ Interior Gas Utility to extend natural gas distribution lines into additional neighborhoods in North Pole, where winter air quality is the worst. Czarnecki says 4 million dollars will go toward the expansion.

“The 4 million is a starting point. We’ve been successful over the years with EPA with getting these grants, and over the past 6 years we’ve gotten about 42 million from EPA in these grants, so we’ll just continue to take it one chunk at a time, and it all adds up in the end, and helps us get to that…get to cleaner air.”

Fairbanks North Star Borough mayor Bryce Ward has followed the ten-year saga and cautions that it’s far from over.

“It’s going to take a lot of commitment and work by the community to get us to attainment and then once we get there we’ve got to maintain, and so I think as a community we’ve got to be prepared for that. That this is not something that’s going to go away. We’re going to be dealing with this for quite some time in the future.”

Failing to meet the Clean Air Act fine particulate standard is triggering a federal sanction. A local transportation construction planning document is being frozen as is, with no additions allowed, until the EPA approves the air quality plan. ###