Borough still grappling with PM 2.5 pollution...

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Borough still grappling with PM 2.5 pollution...

Postby Wilberforce » Sun Jan 01, 2017 7:56 pm

Eight years of air struggles: Borough still grappling with PM 2.5 pollution despite clean-up effort

Dec 22, 2016 (…)

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Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial:

Eight years ago today, the Fairbanks and North Pole area entered a new chapter in the struggle to clean up local air. On Dec. 22, 2008, the federal Environmental Protection Agency declared a wide swath of the borough’s most densely populated area as being in non-attainment with particulate air pollution standards. Since then, a series of local and state efforts to manage the problem have seen some progress, but no one could credibly claim the air pollution problem is under control. Even the relatively modest steps the borough has taken to deal with the issue have met considerable resistance, and it may well be the case that meaningful air cleanup will require a large-scale conversion to natural gas — a prospect which itself has seen substantial changes and delays.

When Fairbanks was first deemed out of compliance for PM 2.5 pollution, it was a different time for Alaska and the Interior. Sarah Palin was still in office as governor, and the state was still pursuing an ill-fated natural gas pipeline through Canada to the Lower 48 with partner TransCanada. There was immediate debate in the community about whether it would be better for the state or the borough to take the lead on air clean-up efforts — a debate which continues today.

The biggest difficulties in dealing with PM 2.5 pollution deal with the relatively miniscule size of the particles in question. Their name is a direct description of that size — particulate matter no larger than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. Although the particles are often suspended in fog, smoke or haze, they’re too small to themselves be seen with the unaided eye. What’s more, their health effects, the reason why the EPA’s limit on their concentration has marched steadily downward over time, often take years or even decades to manifest. This makes it difficult to tie specific cases of ill health to PM 2.5 pollution, though a growing body of research has established those effects. But it certainly makes the matter more difficult to tackle from a local political standpoint, because most people aren’t able to make a personal connection between bad air and its negative effects on their health — particularly if it has become normal for them.

Compounding the matter further is the fact the Interior struggles with some of the highest heating costs of any community its size in the U.S. In an unfortunate twist, the declaration of the nonattainment area in the borough closely paralleled a dramatic increase in cost for heating fuel, with costs rising to the vicinity of $4 per gallon. That triggered many local residents, especially those with limited means, to switch to wood stoves or wood- and coal-fired outdoor boilers for home heating, to combat costs. Wood and coal, particularly when burned outside of the optimal temperature and moisture range, are prime sources of PM 2.5 pollution.

Eight years later, though Fairbanks has seen limited success in cleaning up its air, the North Pole area continues to struggle with regular wintertime episodes of pollution well in excess of safe levels. The borough faces two unpalatable alternatives: More stringent restrictions on home heating devices that could impact residents’ ability to heat their homes affordably, or choosing to stand pat and accept a host of costly economic sanctions and health effects to residents. Throughout eight years of nonattainment, local residents and political leaders have pinned hopes on natural gas delivery, whether via a pipeline or a medium-term trucking solution like that envisioned by the Interior Energy Project. Much good work has been done in extending distribution and storage, as well as planning for supply, liquefaction and transportation. But state project managers are still struggling to make the economics of the project meet a $15 per thousand cubic feet of gas target that would be the equivalent of heating fuel at about $2 per gallon.

Writing off the air pollution problem as the cost of doing business in the Interior is unacceptable. So is depriving residents of what in some cases may be their only affordable source of heat. Whatever the borough and state do, they must redouble their efforts to clean up the air without undue harm to residents’ health or pocketbooks — and natural gas delivery appears to be the only such option for real air quality improvement. It’s been eight years since Fairbanks and North Pole were declared out of attainment for PM 2.5 pollution. There’s no reason that should still be the case eight years from today.

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