FAIRBANKS — An air pollution control plan by the Borough Mayor drew harsh criticism from a rowdy crowd of at least 100 people packed into the Borough Assembly chambers Thursday.
The plan sets regulations on chimney smoke with fines of up to $500 to be imposed on the worst polluters starting late next year.
The assembly will decide at its next meeting whether the measure goes to a public hearing.
Even so, critics of the 16-page plan testified to the assembly, invoking God, freedom and the U.S. Constitution. Some mocked Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins. About a dozen people stood outside picketing. No one testified in favor of curtailing air pollution.
“I would be happy to breathe dirty air and let someone be warm,” Lovette Marchbanks told the assembly.
A mandate by the federal government prompted the Fairbanks North Star Borough to start reducing levels of PM 2.5. The air pollutant is known to cause health problems, and wood smoke is believed to be the No. 1 contributor.
Hopkins’ plan provides government subsidies and tax credits to encourage people to replace old, dirty wood stoves. Only solid fuel burning devices approved by the borough or the Environmental Protection Agency would be allowed to be installed in the borough under the plan. Already-installed devices are grandfathered in.
The plan would ban the burning of certain materials, including construction debris, garbage and tires, in the heart of the borough. Chimney smoke would be judged based on opacity and methods put forth by the EPA. Borough employees designated by the mayor would measure the emissions starting Sept. 1, 2011.
“If I catch somebody on my roof, I’m going to blow them off of it,” one man told the assembly. Another testifier called for a total recall of elected leaders. The picketers carried their signs into the assembly chambers. “Staying warm shouldn’t be illegal,” one sign read.
Coleman Barney of North Pole said it seems like “we have to have permission for everything we do.”
“We are not free people,” he said.
Rita Leake said the plan should be thrown out.
“You need to vote this down or start all over with something that makes sense,” she said.
Critics of the pollution control plan also asked the assembly to refuse the mayor’s request to hire an air quality project coordinator. Residents said in testimony that they objected to accepting federal money to pay for the position.
The assembly voted 5-3 to approve the new hire with Assemblymen Guy Sattley, Hank Bartos and Matt Want opposing. Members of the audience shouted angrily following the vote.
Moments earlier, Bartos said the community ought to focus on preparing for natural gas instead of “fooling around stomping on wood fires.”
“The citizens in our community are drowning in a sea of high energy costs,” he said. “Hiring someone to teach us how to burn wood is not the most cost-effective use of our funding.”
Assemblyman Tim Beck said the community can’t afford to wait for another politician’s promise to bring natural gas to Fairbanks.
“I’m not any happier than the rest of you,” he said. “We need to take care of this (pollution) problem.”
In other business, the Borough Assembly postponed a measure to excuse companies from paying the bed tax when they rent rooms long-term.
The unanimous vote on Thursday came after the measure’s sponsor asked for postponement.
The city of Fairbanks is considering revoking its corporate bed tax exemption.
The city mayor asked the borough to hold off on establishing an exemption so the municipal governments can coordinate. Individuals who rent rooms in either the city or the borough are exempt from paying the bed tax when they rent rooms for longer than a month.
The assembly also approved two measures Thursday in support of a realignment of the Alaska Railroad to south Fairbanks.
One measure asks the Alaska Legislature to pay $10 million to study a railroad move. The second measure asks the Legislature to transfer Chena riverfront land to the Fairbanks North Star Borough for recreational use.
A private railroad safety group has been pushing for the railroad move, citing safety concerns due to multiple railroad crossings through the middle of Fairbanks.
Supporters of Ice Alaska, host of international ice sculpting competitions, also want the realignment.
Ice Alaska rents the riverfront land in question from the railroad, and officials say they can’t afford an April 1 rent hike.
Supporters of the organization have pinned their hopes on getting a new landlord.
“If we don’t do something about the Ice Park, there’s not going to be one next year,” said Assemblyman Hank Bartos, sponsor of the measures.