Fairbanks air quality lawsuit successful

Wood stove pipe on Fairbanks area home (Photo by Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks)

Environmental groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have reached an agreement that settles one of two active lawsuits aimed at forcing the agency to take overdue action on Fairbanks-North Pole area air quality. Localized, but extreme wintertime episodes of fine particulate pollution due to wood and fossil fuel burning emissions have long plagued the communities. Clean air advocates see the legal action as a small win in a long-running effort to reduce pollution.

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Under a court-approved consent decree agreed to by the environmental groups and the EPA, the agency must issue an assessment by the end of August 2017 of the adequacy of a State Implementation Plan laying out measures to reduce Fairbanks and North Pole fine particulate pollution. The agreement essentially prompts overdo action required under the Clean Air Act.

“I’m happy we’re moving towards compliance with the Clean Air Act, short-term and long-term, both for the sake of our health and for our economy,” Patrice Lee said. Lee is with Fairbanks based Citizens for Clean Air, which together with Alaska Community Action on Toxics brought the suit.

The group’s attorney Kenta Tsuda with Earth Justice said another consent decree still in the public comment phase would resolve a second lawsuit.

“And that’s addressing EPA’s inaction under the Clean Air Act with respect to the determination of meeting attainment dates for cleaning up the air,” Tsuda said. “And if it fails to do so, reclassification as a serious non-attainment area.”

Reclassification as serious requires a new state plan to address pollution, building on current plan measures like burn bans and a requirement that only dry is burned in wood stoves and boilers. Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Air Quality Division Director Denise Koch said the state and Fairbanks North Star Borough will have to re-craft the technical document by a December 2017 EPA deadline.

“It was going to be really tough to submit that on time because public process is a very important part, and not a part that we’re going to short-change in any way,” Koch said. “So it’s going to be a big challenge.”

Failure to get the plan in on time can result in sanctions, including impacts to federal transportation funding.  One other moving part in the local air quality puzzle is a state proposal requesting EPA consider Fairbanks and North Pole air separately. Its inspired by very differing trends. Fairbanks is close to meeting federal standards, while North Pole suffers the worst particulate spikes in the nation