The Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly held a second, lengthy public hearing Thursday night on an ordinance that would set standards for local air-quality, and policies and penalties to enforce those standards. Many of the comments focused on the health impacts of the ordinance.
The second public hearing in two weeks on the proposed ordinance to clean up the air locally took place under a blanket of smog that’s been sitting on top of this area for several days now since the cold snap set in last week.
That was reflected in comments by Assembly Deputy Presiding Officer John Davies when he opened the hearing.
“The levels of pollution are serious and constitute a true health issue,” Davies said.
Like the previous hearing, another standing-room-only crowd turned out again to testify for and against the ordinance crafted by Davies and Assembly members Kathryn Dodge and Janice Golub.
Dodge and Golub pointed out that changes in the ordinance based on public comments eased-up on many of those penalties. Offenders could be allowed to attend a class instead of paying a fine. Lenience could be offered for people suffering economic hardship. Rules would be suspended during blackouts, to allow people to wood-heat their homes until the power comes back on.
The changes also included some loosening of restrictions on selling homes with older wood-burners. But Board of Realtors President Randi Carnahan says those didn’t go far enough.
“Preventing noncompliant homeowners from selling their property we feel is an impractical approach and detrimental to the housing market,” Carnahan said.
Other comments on the economic impact of poor air quality included how it might make the area’s military installation more vulnerable to base realignment and closure.
But perhaps the most commonly repeated theme was about how poor air quality affected health. Some expressed doubts there’s a connection that can be made with smoke from wood-burning heating systems. Like Luke Mowry, who lives in Fox, He says he was born and raised in a wood-heated home, and says he didn’t suffer any health problems.
“(I) Got wood heat. (I) Use it quite a bit at my place. That’s our primary source of heat,” Mowry said. “My boy was born with respiratory issues. So, I know that piece of it, too.”
Bob Hook is a 37-year resident of North Pole. He says he burns six or seven cords a wood a year at his house. And even though he suffers multiple respiratory ailments, Cook says he believes they can’t be directly linked to air quality problems.
“I have in the last eight years developed asthma, I have COPD,” he said, referring to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “I have respiratory issues. And can I directly relate those to air quality? No.”
Hook says more research would be required to make a direct connection like that. But he says poor air quality is at least a contributing factor. And because of that, he supports the proposed ordinance.
But local health care professional Jennifer Nelson says Fairbanks Memorial Hospital has begun collecting data on whether and how much air quality affects the health of area residents. Nelson is the director of the hospital’s Emergency Services, Forensic Nursing and Trauma Services. And she says the hospital wants to offer its perspective on those health impacts.
“There’s been lots of comments made, but some of them were not necessarily backed up by hard data,” she said. “So we feel the responsibility of Fairbanks Memorial Hospital is to provide some HIPPA-compliant data to aid in this discussion as it relates to our health.”
Nelson says hospital staff crunched numbers and found a rise in emergency room admissions from four areas that registered high quantities of respiratory-tract irritating particulate matter, or so-called PM2.5.
“We have quite a number of respiratory-related complaints, relating from wheezing, shortness of air, cough...”
Nelson says the data is preliminary, and that further studies are needed. She says the hospital is willing to conduct those studies, and Dodge enthusiastically encouraged her to proceed.
The Assembly will include that data and the public comments when it considers adoption of the air-quality ordinance in its Feb. 12 meeting.
Editor's note: The full public hearing can be heard in five audio files available on the borough website's Assembly page, in the audio tracks column under the 2015 Meeting Information section.