2010 Feb. 17: AK Fairbanks: Fairbanks air quality at all-time low

2010 Feb. 17: AK Fairbanks: Fairbanks air quality at all-time low

This vehicle is equipped to gauge the air quality. (Dan Carpenter/KTUU-DT) This vehicle is equipped to gauge the air quality. (Dan Carpenter/KTUU-DT)
 When heating oil and other fuel prices skyrocketed, many Fairbanksans went back to using wood and coal to heat their homes. (Dan Carpenter/KTUU-DT)
The inversion, a layer of warm air on top of cool air, keeps pollution from drifting out of the Fairbanks area. (Dan Carpenter/KTUU-DT) The inversion, a layer of warm air on top of cool air, keeps pollution from drifting out of the Fairbanks area. (Dan Carpenter/KTUU-DT)
The Borough is now in charge of its own air quality, and the mayor plans to present a plan in the coming months. (Dan Carpenter/KTUU-DT) The Borough is now in charge of its own air quality, and the mayor plans to present a plan in the coming months. (Dan Carpenter/KTUU-DT)
by Lori Tipton
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Air quality in Alaska’s second-largest city this winter is at an all-time low.
This past December, Fairbanks exceeded the federal standard for fine particulate pollution a total of 19 days. 
Another 15 days in January exceeded the standard.
The city has violated clean air standards more in a six-week period than they usually do in an entire year.
Todd Thompson is an air quality technician for the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
He spends a lot of time riding the roads in what’s called the "sniffer" vehicle.
The vehicle’s job is to monitor air pollution levels.
"There’s been more complaints from North Pole this year than in the past," Thompson said.
"We’re coming to this area right now just to see if we can get any numbers, to show just how bad it is," he explained.
For more than 30 years, the borough has dealt with an air pollution problem.
First, it was carbon monoxide; now it’s PM 2.5, or particulate matter.
"To give you an example of how small that is, the human hair is approximately 60 microns in diameter, so 2.5 is very small," explained Glenn Miller, the borough’s transportation director.
He says his department has spent the past couple of years trying to determine what’s causing PM 2.5.
"We have been focused on wood smoke because the initial data that we have indicates that wood smoke is a significant contributor," Miller said.
When energy prices spiked a couple of years ago, that prompted more residents in the Fairbanks area to switch to sources that are considered big contributors of air pollution.
"Wood and coal sources all of a sudden become very attractive because they’re much cheaper than the alternative, especially when fuel oil gets up to $4 and $5 a gallon," Miller said.
In Fairbanks, the drop in air quality happens during a temperature inversion — when a layer of warm air sits on top of cold air, trapping pollution close to the surface.
"It’s a case where the meteorology is very much against us. If we happen to have more air flow, for example, like Anchorage does, then we wouldn’t have this problem, but because we have that very, very tight, cold inversion, we’re going to be heating more and the pollution gets stuck," said Catherine Cahill, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Cahill has studied PM 2.5 since the late 1980s.
She says it is a serious health hazard.
"It increases asthma, you can have premature death where people who are already respiratorialy compromised from illness, or the very young or the very old can get a little bit sicker and potentially die sooner, so there are some serious health effects associated with the particulate matter concentrations above the standard," Cahill said.
When the Environmental Protection Agency tightened the fine particulate standard in 2006, changing the standard from 65 micrograms per cubic meter to 35, Fairbanks began exceeding the standard on a regular basis.
"Our concentrations have gone up this year and that means, even with the old standard, we’d be violating. With the new standard, it means we’re toast," Cahill said.
"The concentrations are too high, we are going to be out of compliance, and now we have to come up with, how do we come in to compliance," she continued.
The Borough Assembly introduced a draft ordinance in July regarding wood smoke regulations.
The ordinance would have forced residents to upgrade to EPA certified stoves and create temporary bans on wood burning.
That caused controversy, and after public outcry, the Assembly stepped back.
Borough officials plan to encourage residents to voluntarily make changes to help cut back on PM 2.5.
Even though initial data shows wood smoke is a big contributor, the borough says other studies also need to be done to find out how much particulate matter comes from fuel oil, waste oil, coal and vehicles.
"Before we can impose any programs or restrictions, we really need to understand where the sources are coming from," Miller, the transportation director, said.
"It’s going to be a big project to tackle because you can’t single out one source," Thompson said.
The Assembly voted unanimously in mid-January to approve an agreement with the state, putting the borough in charge of air quality.
Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins says he will introduce an air quality plan in the coming months.
The borough has less than three years to submit an implementation plan to the EPA, or risks losing federal funding.
The borough’s transportation department is conducting a study now that is measuring the amount of PM 2.5 that’s emitted from vehicle exhaust.
The initial data gathering should wrap up by this weekend.
Contact Lori Tipton at ltipton@ktuu.com

Advertisements
This entry was posted in A-B States = AL, AK, AZ, AR = Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s