Breathers beware: Particulate fouls icy Fairbanks

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 9, 2012 at 3:53 pm •  Published: December 9, 2012
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Gary Schultz, 58, lived in Fairbanks for more than 30 years but in January was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, the most common form of irregular heartbeat. He went from an active skier to someone who had trouble keeping up with his daughter on a trip back from the mail box. Concerns for his own health and smoke near his daughter's middle school prompted the family to move, reluctantly, outside Seattle.

Fairbanks particulate likely is underreported, he said. The two Fairbanks monitoring stations are on public buildings downtown, away from neighborhoods burning wood.

"We essentially gave up on Fairbanks," he said. "I don't think anything is going to improve up there."

Three winters of Fairbanks noncompliance — an average of 14 days per year — got the attention of the EPA. A compliance plan is due Dec. 14, a deadline Heil and other officials acknowledge will not be met. They hope to complete an acceptable compliance plan within 18 months, before the EPA by law must withhold federal highway construction money. After two years, the EPA must impose its own compliance plan.

Solutions to air problems, Kelly said, are best tailored close to home but local compliance efforts in Fairbanks have met resistance.

"Everybody wants clean air," said state Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole. "We just have to make sure that we can also heat our homes."

Wilson sponsored a citizen initiative passed in October that bans the borough regulation of home heating devices. The borough, she said, has no business stepping in with restrictions when no one knows if they will work.

"We're still waiting here for a model, a model that shows us that if we do A, B and C, we can then get into attainment," she said. "We have not seen anything from the borough, from the state or from the EPA showing us that that is even possible with the technology that is available to us."

The borough now can only encourage voluntary measures, such as avoiding the burning of green wood.

Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins said an acceptable attainment plan might still be possible using incentives such as replacement program for inefficient wood stoves and underwriting fuel oil costs on inversion days. Getting 7,000 homeowners to voluntarily use oil instead of wood on the worst days might do it, he said. The entire borough, he said, has a financial incentive to avoid losing federal road money and living under a federal air quality attainment plan.

"I don't want that. I don't think anybody wants that," he said.

Patrice and Alex Lee remained mostly hunkered down last week as temperatures hovered near -40, awaiting a change in the weather or the season. Her son, she said, grew especially close to a Stanford surgeon and anesthesiologist who wanted to see Alaska's northern lights until they heard about the particulate problem.

"They're not coming," Lee said. "They wanted to come in the winter to see the aurora. They said, 'You're just crazy to live there.'"



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