Fairbanks still faces contentious wood smoke problem

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Fairbanks still faces contentious wood smoke problem

Postby Wilberforce » Thu Jan 31, 2019 2:21 pm

After struggling for years to clean up its air, Fairbanks still faces contentious wood smoke problem
By Ravenna Koenig, Alaska's Energy Desk - Fairbanks -
January 28, 2019

For years, Fairbanks and neighboring city North Pole have had some of the worst air quality in the United States. And a major contributor to that is people burning wood in their homes to stay warm.

The area has been failing to meet a federal air quality standard since 2009, and this year is the deadline for meeting that standard. But after almost a decade of struggle, trying to get people to cut back on wood burning is still as contentious as ever.

When you look at it technically, Fairbanks’ intractable problem is actually pretty simple, according to Nick Czarnecki, the air quality manager for the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

“We know what the main contributor to the pollution is,” said Czarnecki.

The federal standard that Fairbanks can’t seem to meet is for a tiny pollution particle known as PM 2.5. And Czarnecki said that studies have shown 60-to-80 percent of the pollution that’s putting them over that standard comes from wood-burning stoves in people’s homes. Smaller contributions come from home heating oil, industrial sources like power plants, and car emissions.

But the solution isn’t easy.

“It pits heating one’s home versus breathing clean air,” said Czarnecki.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PM 2.5 has been linked to numerous health issues, including premature death in people with heart or lung disease, aggravated asthma, and decreased lung function.

The high concentration of these particles in Fairbanks and North Pole is due in part to the fact that the area gets some of the most intense temperature inversions in the world. That means that periodically throughout the winter, there are events where the air just gets stuck close to the ground, and all the pollution layers on top of itself.

Over the years, the most controversial step the borough has taken to clean up the air is to ban wood burning on bad air quality days.

In 2015 the Borough Assembly voted to make those bans mandatory for the first time and back them with fines of up to $1,000 for repeat-violators.

Over the course of the next three winters, the borough issued several hundred warning letters, but only three citations.

But in the local election last October, voters passed a proposition that took away the borough’s power to regulate home heating devices like wood stoves and — among other things — their power to enforce burn bans. That job now falls to the state.

But the state — which had little time to budget or plan for their new responsibilities — has fewer resources for enforcement than the borough did. Plus, it doesn’t have the authority to issue fines.

Meanwhile, as the problem enters its 10th year, the emotions around it are as strong as ever.

Patrice Lee is a retired math and science teacher who’s been one of the people most outspoken over the years in trying to get the borough, state and federal governments to do more to clean up the air.

“My youngest son, Alex, has Down syndrome and congenital heart defects. They’re very serious. He’s had five open heart surgeries; a pacemaker implant,” said Lee.

Her son’s vulnerability is what got her involved with the issue, but she said she’s concerned about the health of her community as a whole.

As we talked, Lee got a phone call from a woman she knows out in North Pole. The woman had a heart attack a number of years ago and is worried about the effects of smoke on her health. She sounded deeply frustrated as she told Lee that the smoke pollution at her property is “worse than ever.”

Lee gave her the phone number to lodge a complaint with the state, and they hung up. I asked Lee if people call her like that often.

“They do,” she said. “They don’t know what to do. They’re desperate.”

Lee and others concerned about the health effects of poor air quality feel like they’re watching a public health crisis play out in slow motion.

It’s been almost 10 years, they say, and even though the numbers have improved, the air quality in certain areas is still far worse than the federal standard.

Size comparisons for PM particles.

Size comparisons for PM particles. (Environmental Protection Agency graphic)

But one of the things that makes this issue tricky to solve is that for some, burning wood is its own health and safety issue.

“February last year when it got pretty cold … My fuel tank got the point where it was a matter of either, be compliant and not burn wood, or not feed the kids,” said Jesse Shadley.

Shadley came to Fairbanks with the Army and later worked for the pipeline, where he said he had great benefits and great pay. But that changed when he got divorced and became a single dad.

“Having three kids I’m raising all by myself, I just … I needed to be home more,” said Shadley.

So he left his job at the pipeline and started working as a jeweler in town.

Shadley lives on a quiet suburban street in North Pole where — on the day I visited — the temperature was 40-something below zero.

He told me that it could cost anywhere from about $250 to over $700 a month to heat his home with fuel oil if he’s not supplementing with wood.

He has a waiver for this winter that allows him to burn even during the worst air quality days. He got it because his home would suffer damage from the cold if he didn’t use the wood stove.

That waiver is also issued for homes that don’t have another adequate source of heat, or for individuals who can show financial hardship requires them to burn wood. This year, 49 people have those waivers. Another 244 people have waivers for appliances that meet borough standards for emissions, which lets them burn on days when the air quality is bad but not at its worst.

Shadley said he does his best to burn as little and as cleanly as possible, and the only way he sees this problem being fixed is if everyone does their part to cut back on burning wood.

“There’s going to have to be some compromises. And, you know, people are going to have to understand that there are going to be times where … we can’t just burn wood,” Shadley said.

“And there’s also some people that defiantly burn wood,” he continued, “or defiantly burn wet wood or burn improperly just as a matter of, you know, ‘You can’t tell me what to do.’”

According to the federal law that dictates the timeline for getting an area with poor air quality into attainment, Fairbanks and North Pole are supposed to have the air cleaned up by the end of this year. The average air quality for 2017, 2018, and 2019 together are supposed to meet the federal standard. But both the state and the borough say that’s not possible.

It’s not clear yet what will happen after that.

The area could be required to start reducing the pollution 5 percent each year until they get into attainment. Or the state could request an extension from the EPA, which would require them to use even more stringent measures to clean up the air.

Or eventually — if the area doesn’t show progress — the federal government could take over and come up with their own plan to get the area into attainment.

Either way, local officials say that the longer this problem drags on, the more it’s going to cost the community to fix — and the less control they’ll have.

https://www.alaskapublic.org/2019/01/28 ... e-problem/
Chemistry professor talks about Fairbanks' air quality problem
By Julie Swisher |
Posted: Wed 8:37 PM, Jan 30, 2019

FAIRBANKS, Alaska - The Science for Alaska Lecture series kicked off Tuesday night with the Science of Smoke, Fairbanks' particulate problem. The lecture touched on contributing factors of air quality around the Interior.

Professor of Chemistry at UAF Bill Simpson started off by explaining the reasons why Fairbanks and North Pole have such high amounts of particulate matter in the air, one being cold weather inversions.

"That type of situation can lead to smoke trapping in the ground like this," said Simpson.

He also said, the more we know about particulates in the air, the more we can improve health and find more progressive ways to solving the problem. The particulate that Simpson mainly spoke about was PM 2.5.

"When you talk about the particles that we are interested in, we call them fine particulate matter. We also call it PM 2.5 because the ones that we are interested in are less than 2.5 micron in diameter," said Simpson.

A human red blood cell is about 5 microns in diameter.

"When you breathe them in, they put chemicals into your lungs and they can cause health effects," he said.

And then he showed what types of home heating sources contribute to the air quality problem.

"Eighty three percent of the heat was coming from oil in downtown Fairbanks. In North Pole, 99705 zip code, there is a higher percentage of wood combustion but still a dominance of oil. Oil is the biggest heat source in both of those areas," said Simpson.

But the majority of the particulate matter comes from the wood burning stoves. Simpson says the best way for homeowners to lower the percentage of particulates in the air is to burn with dry wood and up keep to your stove. Oil burners should consider using number one heating fuel, when it comes to power plant contributions.

"Power plants do contribute less than wood smoke, so it's something that we want to be thinking of, but it's not something that is going to directly solve the problem," said Simpson.

Next week they will explore Alaska climate prospects in a lecture named Some Like It Hot with UAF’s Martin Stuefer. The event starts at 7 p.m. at Raven’s Landing.

https://www.webcenter11.com/tvtv/conten ... 23142.html
• The Surgeon General has determined that there is no safe level of exposure to ambient smoke!

• If you smell even a subtle odor of smoke, you are being exposed to poisonous and carcinogenic chemical compounds!

• Even a brief exposure to smoke raises blood pressure, (no matter what your state of health) and can cause blood clotting, stroke, or heart attack in vulnerable people. Even children experience elevated blood pressure when exposed to smoke!

• Since smoke drastically weakens the lungs' immune system, avoiding smoke is one of the best ways to prevent colds, flu, bronchitis, or risk of an even more serious respiratory illness, such as pneumonia or tuberculosis! Does your child have the flu? Chances are they have been exposed to ambient smoke!
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