I still find it unbelievable that the wood and coal burning has reached this level in first place when we all know that this valley has serious inversion problems already. I know, I know, people would have had (as they tell it) to choose between eating and heat if they didn’t go out and buy their wood and coal burners that cost thousands and thousands of dollars.
There’s no choice on breathing and not breathing, and nobody should have the right to contribute to the air pollution problem in such a hazardous fashion, burning all day and night, and affect my family’s health.
Most of us put a premium on the pristine condition of our natural surroundings, which is why it comes as a surprise to learn from federal environmental regulators that our air violates the Clean Air Act. Surprising, but true. Most often the air doesn’t look particularly smoky or foggy because the particulates are just too small to be seen. Last winter, our air emissions violated the national limits for small particulates nearly one-third of all the winter days.
PM2.5 is the name given to very small particulates that are causing Fairbanks to be out of compliance. It’s not just a regulatory issue; it’s a health issue for every Fairbanks resident. These particulates are so small they can penetrate deep into the lungs, and the very smallest particulates can then enter our blood stream and cause or aggravate health problems. Those most susceptible to health impacts are our community’s children, grandparents and people with heart and lung ailments, and those of us who work or exercise outdoors. PM2.5 comes from a variety of sources, including industry, vehicles and natural sources, but by far the largest source is wood-burning stoves.
Typically, locally based programs allow for greater flexibility in designing a program for the community, allowing Fairbanks to take into account the needs of its residents. The voters passed a proposition in fall of 2009 that allowed the borough to design a PM2.5 air quality program instead of having to accept a program controlled and administered by the state of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency.
We’ve already seen results from borough-led planning as we continue a healthy public discussion of wood-smoke reductions through elected officials, the Air Pollution Control Commission, the 2009 Air Quality Symposium, town hall forums and vendor meetings. The input from these discussions has led to many adjustments in the terms and conditions of control programs to best suit our local needs and lifestyles.
There are a lot of myths out there. First, this is not a program to eliminate wood stoves. Wood burning is a way of life, from the folks who use it as their primary heating to those of us who use it to reduce the of heating fuel we have to purchase. The point is that we have to burn smarter, use good equipment and use it correctly. We can create a voluntary program for those who wish to change their older stoves to more efficient and less polluting ones. And whenever we burn, we need to burn dry, seasoned wood.
Sometimes change is hard. And it would feel good to just say “no” when we are being asked to change. But it’s not really about that. It’s about making Fairbanks’ air healthy to breathe and protecting our vulnerable populations — our kids, our elders, those managing medical conditions, like asthma, and the folks who spend more time outdoors, working and exercising. There are economic considerations, too. Being out of compliance with the federal Clean Air Act puts our construction projects and other development at risk. They can’t get their environmental permits if our air is dirty. And there are other incentives for Fairbanks to comply with federal law, such as preserving our federal highway funds from sanctions, funds that help us build and maintain our transportation system.
The borough is sponsoring an informational open house at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center from 5-7:30 p.m. Tuesday and at the North Pole Middle School cafeteria from 5-7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Experts will be on hand to answer questions on a whole host of issues surrounding PM2.5, including the borough’s new ordinance, the health risk of PM2.5, the EPA’s regulatory timeline, the proposed wood stove voluntary exchange program and best burning practices. This is your chance to ask the experts how the new program might affect you, how PM2.5 affects the human body, what type of stove is the most efficient and how to make the best of your existing unit.
It’s time the quality of our air matches the rest of our environment — healthy in which to live, work and play.
Luke Hopkins is mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough. He was elected in 2009.