Alaskans’ Cost of Staying Warm: A Thick Coat of Dirty Air

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Alaskans’ Cost of Staying Warm: A Thick Coat of Dirty Air

Postby Wilberforce » Sun Dec 25, 2016 2:22 pm

Alaskans’ Cost of Staying Warm: A Thick Coat of Dirty Air

NORTH POLE, Alaska — Miners huddled around them to stay warm through the long, cold nights in the Klondike gold rush of the 1800s. Artists have enshrined them in paintings and tourist curios. For many people in America’s far north, the old-fashioned wood stove — crackling and radiant, and usually cast-iron black — is as Alaskan as it gets. But many Alaskans also see their home state as a natural wonderland, where the expectation of bracingly pristine air is just as deeply ingrained.

Winter has arrived here in a town where St. Nicholas Drive intersects North Santa Claus Lane, and the streetlight poles are painted to look like candy canes. That means wood-fired stoves, interludes of cough-inducing smoke and vehement arguments about who is to blame. It is the season of light, and also the season of soot.

“That guy has got an old stove, right there,” Dr. Jeanne Olson, a veterinarian and air quality volunteer, said on a recent afternoon, pointing from the cab of her four-wheel-drive Toyota toward a spiraling column of thick gray smoke from a homeowner’s chimney. The thermometer inside Dr. Olson’s cab said it was 30 below zero outside, which meant that lots of people in the vicinity were probably putting another log on the fire, or thinking about it, even as she spoke.

Air pollution in winter is different from the ground-level ozone smog that hits cities like Los Angeles in summer. Air over the Salt Lake Valley in Utah can turn a sickly yellow in January. Agricultural areas like the Cache Valley in southern Idaho and the San Joaquin Valley in California can be socked in by chilly, pollution-laced fog. Residents of Beijing are suffering this month through one of that city’s worst stretches of air pollution in a year.

But here in one of the coldest parts of the coldest state, there is an only-in-Alaska pollution story: At about minus 20 Fahrenheit — a fairly regular occurrence here in winter — smoke that goes up comes right back down, to linger at ground level and, therefore, lung level. The average from 2013 to 2015 for dangerous small-particle pollution, called PM 2.5, which can be deeply inhaled into the lungs, was by far the highest in the nation in North Pole, just southeast of Fairbanks, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“It’s all one thing — when you most need the heat is when you’re most apt to create a serious air pollution problem for yourself and the people in your community,” said Tim Hamlin, the director of the office of air and waste at the E.P.A.’s Region 10, which includes Alaska.

And forces are now converging to heighten the tension in this seemingly unlikely pollution story. Civil fines by Fairbanks North Star Borough — which includes the cities of Fairbanks and North Pole, with a total population of about 100,000 — could be assessed in coming days against residential polluters. The E.P.A. could declare the entire area to be in “serious” noncompliance of the Clean Air Act early next year, with potentially huge economic implications, including a cutoff of federal transportation funds.

Some residents said they feared that an overreaching government, locally and in Washington, was out to take away their stoves. Others, like Dr. Olson, who works with racing sled dogs in her veterinary practice and volunteers with Citizens for Clean Air, a local group that has sued the E.P.A. to force a decision on Fairbanks pollution, said the exact opposite.

The government, Dr. Olson said, has been endangering public health by dragging its feet. For six consecutive days in mid-December, the air here was declared “unhealthy,” for high particulate content — the longest streak since the current monitoring system began in late 2015, according to the borough’s air quality division.

“Both sides are digging in their heels,” said the borough’s mayor, Karl Kassel, who has been calling residents to chat about their heating systems and to urge them to upgrade, with financial help from the borough, to more efficient wood stoves. “We have been settieng ourselves up for a crescendo.”

Certainly, no one from the E.P.A. or in local government is saying this part of Alaska is universally polluted. The problem, they say, is often block by block or street by street, because in the deep cold inversions, particulate pollution settles to the lowest areas in a basin surrounded by hills. Fairbanks North Star Borough is about the size of New Jersey, most of it wooded, wild and dazzlingly beautiful in winter.

“We have a weather problem, we have inversions here that trap air, and it’s something that can’t be solved,” said Lance Roberts, a member of the Borough Assembly.

Residents are also trapped, he said, by economics. Natural gas, a much cleaner fuel source, is not widely available in this part of Alaska, and heating oil can be very expensive. Oil also produces particulate pollution, though less than wood. A study for the borough last year said residents here spent, on average, almost four times the national average in annual heating costs.

“People up here tend to be more independent,” Mr. Roberts added. “They came up here to get away from the regulatory environment that’s down in the lower 48, so they definitely see the E.P.A. as coming after wood stoves and trying to cut out that kind of independent lifestyle where you can live off the grid.”

Mr. Hamlin, the E.P.A. official, said his agency was definitely not trying to take away anyone’s wood stove, or make life more expensive. But he said the Clean Air Act, passed by Congress in 1970, requires a standard of breathable air for all Americans. The E.P.A. was given the job of enforcing that standard.

“We don’t want to be telling people what to do, but the standard is what it is, and we want to work with you to be able to get there,” he said.

Critics of government intervention, led by a local representative in the Alaska Legislature, Tammie Wilson, said they were ready to fight back with a lawsuit if the borough started fining homeowners for smoke violations, especially if their homes are far from the monitor that is recording air quality in the community. The North Pole air monitor regularly records some of the highest local concentrations of particulate pollution in the nation.

“They’re allowing themselves to be bullied by the E.P.A.,” said Ms. Wilson, a Republican. “And there’s going to be an uproar. We already have a big group of people who will make sure there is money to take it to court so that we can finally prove that the way they’re doing air quality doesn’t make any sense.”

Some residents are taking action on their own. Morgan Boatman said he had begun to understand local air quality problems more deeply in chatting with Dr. Olson, who cares for his dogs at her veterinary clinic. Last month, he shut down his old boiler system and had a high-efficiency masonry furnace installed in its place, at a cost of about $25,000.

“I’m not big on government, and I think there’s a lot of overreach, but I’m trying to be a good steward,” he said. “I see now that there is a problem.”


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Re: Alaskans’ Cost of Staying Warm: A Thick Coat of Dirty Air

Postby Wilberforce » Tue Dec 27, 2016 7:20 pm

Some of the Dirtiest Air in US Can Be Found at North Pole
Old woodstoves aren't helping in Alaska
By Linda Hervieux, Newser Staff
Posted Dec 26, 2016 10:57 AM CST
79 comments Comments

(Newser) – Odds are old Saint Nick was happy to flee the North Pole to make his annual rounds this Christmas. A dirty haze has settled over this part of northern Alaska, hovering over streets named Santa Claus Lane. The New York Times pins the blame on what it calls an "only-in-Alaska" pollution problem: People use old, inefficient wood-burning stoves, and when the smoke goes out their chimneys, frigid temperatures force it back down to ground level. That results in the highest readings in the nation of a pollution measure called PM 2.5, which refers to fine-particulate matter. In fact, the area suffered a record stretch of six consecutive days earlier this month with air deemed unhealthy, reports the Fairbanks News-Miner. This ground-level pollution is seen as particularly dangerous because it can get directly into lungs.

The dirty woodstove problem is particularly pronounced in the Fairbanks-North Pole area, about the size of New Jersey. With cleaner natural gas in short supply and heating oil expensive, wood is the fuel of choice as temperatures hover around minus 20 below. Upgrading to a more efficient wood stove is expensive, even with local government assistance, and many independent Alaskans balk at the cost—and being told what to do. (An education campaign is trying to spread the word that upgrading is actually a wise investment, notes the Frontiersman.) Failing to comply could result in residents being fined, and the borough losing federal transportation funds if the EPA declares the area in violation of the Clean Air Act. "Both sides are digging in their heels," Mayor Karl Kassel tells the Times. (Some in China are buying Canadian air in a can.)

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• 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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