State to submit Fairbanks clean air plan by mid-December

October 29, 2019 GMT

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The state agency responsible for maintaining safe air for Alaskans has agreed to submit a cleanup plan for Fairbanks to federal regulators by mid-December.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation will submit a cleanup plan to the federal Environmental Protection Agency by Dec. 15 as part of a lawsuit brought by clean air advocates.

Fine particulate, a pollutant that can cause heart and lung problems, especially among the young and the elderly, has spiked out of compliance during winter months in the Fairbanks North Star Borough for more than a decade.

advocates for clean air have sued four times seeking compliance.

The EPA in a second agreement overseen by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly of Seattle said it would decide by Jan. 15 whether the state plan contained all necessary parts. If it does, the EPA will have a year to decide whether the plan will bring Fairbanks into compliance with federal clean air law.

A spokeswoman for one of the groups that sued, Citizens for Clean Air, expressed hope that the court-enforced deadlines would accelerate a remedy for serious air pollution.

“The longer it takes to clean up our air, the more citizens will continue to be the collateral damage,” Patrice Lee said in a prepared statement.

Residents remain vulnerable to health problems and premature death, especially senior citizens on fixed incomes, special needs children, adults with chronic illness, pregnant women and children, Lee said.

Fine particulate is a mix of solid particles and liquid droplets that can be inhaled deep in the lungs. Particulate can cause premature death in people with heart and lung diseases.

Much of the air pollution problem in Fairbanks is blamed on the incomplete burning of wood in woodstoves. Wood is an alternative heat source to expensive heating oil in the region where winter temperatures routinely fall to -50 Fahrenheit (-45.6 Celsius.)

Fairbanks’ geography contributes to the particulate problem. Hills surrounding Fairbanks create a bowl effect. Particulate can be trapped by inversions, layers of warmer air that cap cold, dirty air and keep it from dissipating.

Limits on woodstoves have not been popular. Fairbanks voters in October 2018 approved a measure prohibiting local officials from regulating how people heat their homes.

Attorney Jeremy Lieb of Earthjustice, the environmental law firm that represented the clean-air advocates, said his clients were not satisfied with a draft state plan released in the summer that had the goal of reducing pollution 5% annually and full compliance with federal law in 10 years, or by Dec. 31, 2029.

“That doesn’t meet what’s required for a serious area plan,” Lieb said.

The groups want to see full compliance within five years, he said.

If the EPA in December 2020 rejects the state plan, the agency would give Alaska authorities a deadline to revise inadequacies within 18 months or face sanctions and a federal cleanup plan.