2010 Jan. 17: AK Fairbanks: Trio of communities might offer insight into Fairbanks’ air pollution problem

2010 Jan. 17: AK Fairbanks: Trio of communities might offer insight into Fairbanks’ air pollution problem
by Amanda Bohman / abohman@newsminer.com
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Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
A view of the Mendenhall Valley in Juneau is seen. During clear, cold winter days, a weather inversion causes the city to ban burning of wood for heat because of air quality issues.
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FAIRBANKS — The tiny town of Pinehurst, Idaho, sits in a valley and needed to do something about the pollution being caused by smoke from wood stoves.

So the federal government helped Pinehurst residents buy cleaner-burning wood stoves. The state government asked people to hold back voluntarily on wood burning when the air was dirty. The state also started promoting clean wood-burning practices.

The effort started about two years ago.

The result? The city reduced its air pollution enough to come into compliance with federal standards for the allowable level of microscopic particles known as PM 2.5.

Fairbanks continues to look for a solution to its air quality problem, caused in large part by the burning of wood to heat homes.

Cities across the nation must have a three-year particle average below

35.5 micrograms. Fairbanks’ latest average is 41, and a pollution-control plan is due to the Environmental Protection Agency in three years. Others cities, including Libby, Mont., and Juneau, also had particulate pollution brought on mainly by wood smoke. They took similar measures as Pinehurst and improved their air quality, but it wasn’t always easy.

Juneau and Libby ban wood burning when too much pollution is detected in the air.

Juneau banned wood burning in the Mendenhall Valley a dozen times last winter. Officials enforced the ban by issuing written warnings and tickets.

The public complained loudly in Libby the first time the ban went into effect there.

“Of course, there was resistance,” said county environmental health director Kathi Hooper. “When the air alert was called in October of 2008, people called our office. They called their elected officials, and a dozen or so people picketed at the courthouse one afternoon. I organized a public meeting a few weeks later to discuss the alert and air quality in general. Over 100 people attended, which is a pretty good turnout for


A wood stove trade association later supplied Libby residents with $1 million for low-income families to buy new wood stoves and stove pipes.

“What saved us is that we could offer people a free wood stove and installation,” Hooper said.


An estimated 3,600 people live in Pinehurst’s air pollution district, which goes beyond city boundaries into the Silver Valley, said Mark Boyle, the regional air quality manager for the state of Idaho.

Federal oversight of particulate matter in the Silver Valley dates back to the late 1980s when the government began regulating slightly larger particles known as PM 10.

The EPA set tighter restrictions for PM 2.5 in 2006, and Pinehurst began its wood stove change-out program the next year, using money from the EPA. Limits also were put on open burning.

Forty households changed their old, dirty stoves for wood stoves certified by the federal government, Boyle said. Some people switched to oil.

In many cases, a subsidy of up to $1,000 paid for half the cost of a new stove, Boyle said.

State officials began encouraging people to burn only seasoned wood and to stop using smoldering fires at night.

“As soon as you damp it down, it’s starved for oxygen so you get incomplete combustion,” Boyle said. “That’s when there’s a lot of smoke.”

The state ran ads in newspapers offering tips on how to burn wood properly and save fuel.

“I think the biggest impact we had were the person-to-person contacts we had,” Boyle said.

Anyone who applied for the wood stove change-out subsidy met with officials who gave advice about the best wood-burning


“Most people were really surprised that banking your stove overnight and turning down the damper was not good for the air quality,” Boyle said.

Air quality advisories kept the issue in the forefront, he said, but Pinehurst also got lucky last winter with active weather patterns that kept the air moving.

Pinehurst had fewer voluntary wood-burning bans from October through December of last year than in the same time period in 2007 partly because of favorable weather.

“We had a lot of storms,” Boyle said.


Libby sits in a valley in the northwest corner of Montana, sandwiched between mountain ranges to the north and the south.

About 11,000 people in Libby and the surrounding area live in the air pollution control district, said Hooper, the county environmental health director.

“Wood is readily available here, and it is the only affordable heat source that is readily available here,” Hooper said.

Libby’s history with particulate pollution dates back to the 1980s with PM 10.

“We have terrible temperature inversions,” Hooper said.

But Libby is unique among the cities struggling to control PM 2.5. The Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association granted Libby area residents $1 million to pay for wood stoves and pipes for low-income families. That was in addition to grants provided by the federal government.

The change-out program spanned three years starting in 2005. Hooper said 1,200 wood stoves in the area were replaced with stoves certified by the EPA.

“We didn’t grandfather any in,” she said. “No non-certified devices are allowed at all.”

The county declares air alerts when no wood burning is allowed. One air alert was called last winter, Hooper said.

The county established a hot line that people can call to turn in anyone suspected of violating air quality laws.

Libby’s pollution control program focused on education. The county sponsored wood stove fairs, burn-smart events and public meetings. The local government advertised proper wood burning tips on the radio and in newspapers.

Eventually, air pollution was cut from a three-year average of 41 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter of air to 34.

A small percent of the PM 2.5 pollution came from cars and trucks.

“Since wood smoke was by far the main contributor, no other causes were addressed,” Hooper said.


About 15,000 people live in Juneau’s smoke hazard area in the Mendenhall Valley, said city lands and resources manager Heather Marlow.

The city began dealing with particulate pollution by addressing PM 10 in the 1980s, she said. Residents were told they had five years to upgrade their wood stoves on their own dime, and many people did. Some installed oil or pellet stoves, Marlow said.

The city also developed a system of air alerts, during which only residents with EPA-certified stoves could burn wood, and air emergencies, when no one in the Mendenhall Valley could burn wood.

The valley eventually reduced its air pollution so when PM 2.5 became a problem, officials knew what to do.

“The public, they were aware of the issue and they were aware that our previous approach had been a real solution,” Marlow said.

As it stands, open burning is prohibited in the Mendenhall Valley during the winter. The city calls an air quality emergency when PM 2.5 levels are unhealthy.

An average of two air quality emergencies per month were called last winter.

Juneau also enforces its wood-burning suspensions. The city issued 150 written warnings and two tickets last winter, Marlow said.

She considers the program a success.

“I think the key to our success is people knew there was an issue. If we had to start this last year for the first time, there would have been quite a different reaction.”


Fairbanks’ pollution control zone stretches from the Tanana River to the Goldstream Valley and from North Pole to the Old Nenana Highway. An estimated 83,000 people live in the boundaries, said Glenn Miller, air quality director for the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

Municipal leaders began laying the groundwork for a pollution-control plan soon after the EPA announced it would toughen its standards for PM 2.5.

One of the first things they did was set out to learn what was causing the air pollution. They examined the filters on pollution-collecting devices set throughout Fairbanks and North Pole.

Three reviews from three laboratories point to wood smoke as the biggest single contributor to air pollution, Miller said. Emissions from coal burning and combustible engines also are believed to be contributing to the PM 2.5 in Fairbanks, although by how much is unknown.

A few other things happened:

• Last year, the borough began asking people to cease wood burning voluntarily on days when the air quality exceeds federal standards.

• The Fairbanks City Council enacted an ordinance last summer temporarily prohibiting residents from installing hydronic heaters, also known as outdoor wood and coal boilers, which are believed to be a major contributor to air pollution.

• The Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly called for a vote on the October ballot as to whether residents want a pollution-control program run by the state or the municipality. Fifty-three percent of the voters chose the municipality.

• Also last summer, the assembly discussed pollution control ideas, including regulating wood stoves, that were put forth by the previous borough mayor. The measures were put on hold after public outcry from wood burners fearful the municipality would seek a broad ban on wood stoves.

• The air pollution control commission last month endorsed a clean air proposal from a grassroots group advocating a variety of measures aimed at helping people with wood stoves burn wood cleaner and more efficiently.

• The Borough Assembly last week approved an agreement with the state making the borough the lead agency to deal with air pollution.

State officials have said the state will implement a plan if the municipality balks.

If no one addresses air pollution here, according to a September opinion from a borough-hired law firm in Washington, D.C., federal assistance to the municipality and to the state would be put in jeopardy.

Miller thinks the borough should start tackling the problem immediately by launching an educational effort to promote clean and efficient wood burning practices. Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins said he agrees.

“It’s up to the Borough Assembly,” Miller said. “I think if there were a public education component already in existence, it would already be helping our air quality.”

Miller said the municipality could be offering information on how to find dry wood, how to store wood and how to use moisture-content meters to gauge whether firewood has been seasoned properly.

The borough could establish a hot line to answer questions about proper wood burning, Miller said.

The municipality could adopt some of the measures that have been done in Pinehurst, Libby and Juneau, such as wood-burning suspensions or a wood stove change-out program.

“We have access to grant money that we could be using for a variety of different programs,” Miller said.

At least $250,000 is available from the federal government, he said.

Hopkins plans to introduce a pollution control plan by the end of winter, he said.

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7544.

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