Fairbanks, UAF seek pollution solution

Data from the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, 2009. Graphic by Tom Hewitt/The Sun Star

By Tom Hewitt
Sun Star Reporter

The subject of one of Fairbanks’ most divisive political issues is 1/30th the width of a human hair. Particles two and a half microns across, known as PM 2.5 pollution, are putting residents in danger of health problems. What’s more, they’ve landed the city in political hot water, and what’s at stake may be no less than the area’s economic livelihood.

Dirty Air, Strict Rules

In its battle against air pollution, Fairbanks is at a disadvantage. Situated between the Alaska Range and the Brooks Range, the city goes into deep freeze when cold weather systems move in and are trapped by the natural basin. Making matters worse, the valley creates an inversion that holds polluted air close to the ground. The inversion often holds for days at a time, contributing to strings of air quality violations.

Those violations jumped sharply last year when the Environmental Protection Agency tightened its standards on the allowable amount of PM 2.5 pollution. Fairbanks barely met the old regulation, and the EPA’s decision to cut the limits on PM 2.5 density roughly in half meant that the number of Fairbanks violations skyrocketed. Last December saw more dirty-air days than the entire previous winter.

There are two reasons for the emission crackdown: health and economics. The EPA has linked PM 2.5 pollution to thousands of cases of respiratory ailments like bronchitis and asthma, which have a huge financial impact through hospital visits and missed work days. The EPA’s website estimates that the new PM 2.5 standards, when fully met, will result in a cost savings between nine and 75 billion dollars.

Somewhat surprisingly, some of the most visible sources of pollution in Fairbanks aren’t big contributors to the PM 2.5 problem. The tall stacks of the coal power plants in Fairbanks, Ft. Wainwright, and at UAF may throw a lot of steam and coal dust into the air, but according to research by Nicole Mölders, professor of atmospheric sciences at the Geophysical Institute, their exhaust column is high enough that the pollution they generate doesn’t settle in the Fairbanks area.

Cars, too, contribute less to the situation than it might seem. The high combustion temperatures inside a car engine mean that their emissions of larger, PM 2.5-style particulates are not a significant contributor to the problem, according to Mölders’ research.

The majority of Fairbanks’ particulate pollution, said Assistant Professor of Chemistry Cathy Cahill, comes from wood smoke. A study by the university’s Cold Climate Housing Research Center found that wood heaters account for 64.5 percent of all residential emissions of PM 2.5, with the dirtiest sources being wood-fired boilers.

“These wood-fired boilers are significant contributors because of the way they’re operated,” Cahill said. “People will often pack them full of unseasoned wood and not keep them on a steady burn, they’ll let them smolder for days.” The combination of moisture in the wood and low burning temperatures means that the wood-fired boilers, also known as hydronic heaters, often emit 10 times more PM 2.5 pollution than regular wood stoves, according to the EPA.

An Economic Conundrum

Other places that have run afoul of EPA regulations have adopted restrictions to wood stoves and hydronic heaters, such as boiler bans and no-burn days when pollution is high. In Fairbanks, however, local authorities agree that circumstances are different.

“I don’t see [no burn days] as being viable in Fairbanks,” Cahill said. “A lot of places where they have the no burn days, wood is not a primary source of heat… economically, a lot of people can’t afford oil, so are we going to penalize them for burning wood?”

Borough Assembly member and UAF student Joe Blanchard agreed. “The days when you would need a no-burn day [to meet EPA regulations] are the days when you have to burn to keep warm.”

The issue of how the problem will be addressed turned into a hot-button issue last October, with a ballot question asking whether borough residents wanted local authorities to aid in the search for a PM 2.5 fix. By a narrow margin, voters opted for local involvement

In response, the Borough Assembly and the mayor’s office have partnered with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to draft a road map for Fairbanks to move back into compliance. On the research side, UAF faculty and staff have been devoting their time to researching causes and potential solutions.

“The University has been very engaged,” Cahill said. “You’ve got a whole bunch of university folks doing everything they can to help… and whatever we come up with we have to live with, because we live here too. That’s the good thing about dealing with it locally.”

Looking for Solutions

If Fairbanks can’t solve its PM 2.5 problem by 2019, the borough would start feeling the pinch from the federal government. The portions of the Fairbanks area within the offending area would stand to lose highway funding, according to federal regulations, and new construction and infrastructure projects would be subject to a restrictive permitting process to ensure that they didn’t contribute to the pollution.

Those familiar with the issue are optimistic that the problem can be solved within the EPA’s time frame.

“I think it is [achievable],” Cahill said. “It’s going to require some serious effort. If we removed all the wood smoke, we’d be in [compliance] under all circumstances. Of course, that’s never going to happen, so we need to bring down the other sources as well.

“I think education is going to play a very big role. When people went over to burning wood in the past few years, they didn’t have seasoned wood stacks, and they didn’t necessarily know what they were doing. Just letting people know, ‘Hey, if you [burn wood] this way, it’s really going to help you,’ I think, is going to make a big difference.”

Blanchard agreed that education will be important in dealing with the issue. “Luckily, we’ve got a lot of community interest in this. You’ve got the wood burners association, you’ve got environmental groups… they’re all working together on this.”

According to data from the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, the pollution problem appears intractable without changing some of the biggest sources, such as old, dirty wood stoves and boilers. With wood heat an economic necessity for many Fairbanksans, remedies will likely focus on solutions that don’t impact homeowner budgets. “If we do something – a change-out, or we help retrofit the hydronic heaters, we may be able to let people use them without penalizing them for it,” Cahill said. “The ones that are in use right now are fairly dirty and would really need to be changed out or retrofitted before we’d like to see them operate.”

“We want the biggest bang for our buck,” Blanchard said, explaining that however Fairbanks chooses to solve its problem, it has to balance environmental sense with economic reality. “We could get rid of all of the sources of PM 2.5, and then the community would be a cold dry husk of its former self.”

Asked whether she thought the community will act in time to avoid a federal crackdown, Cahill was blunt. “We have to, and I think we will.”

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