Mat-Su looks north to Fairbanks for advice on air quality

Smoke above the Mat-Su community of Butte. (Photo by Patty Sullivan, Public Affairs Director,
Matanuska-Susitna Borough)

When it comes to keeping its air clean, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is looking north to Fairbanks.

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Smoke from wood burning in the Mat-Su’s Butte region is pushing ever-closer to violating federal air quality standards. Too many bad air days, and the Environmental Protection Agency will swoop in to take action.

That’s what happened in Fairbanks, and it has cost millions to address.

A combination of geography, cold temperatures and stagnant air can cause smoke from wood stoves or burn piles to get trapped close to the ground, and the particulates in the smoke are harmful to lungs. That health risk is why the EPA regulates air quality.

Speaking to the Mat-Su Borough Assembly in Palmer this week, Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Karl Kassel says Fairbanks has spent considerable time and money getting in line with EPA rules.

“Their mission really has been to help us get to cleaner air. This is a health problem,” Kassel said. “We see up-ticks at our hospital when the air is bad. And they understand that coming in like a SWAT team is going to make people annoyed.”

Fairbanks officials have tried to educate residents on the benefits of burning drier wood and cleaning their chimneys, funded a program to swap old stoves for more efficient ones and developed guidelines for burn bans and fines for violators.

But there has been some pushback in Fairbanks. On a few occasions, Fairbanks residents have voted to limit the borough’s powers over regulating air quality.

With similar smoke issues on the horizon in the Butte, borough officials are concerned.

Mat-Su Borough Manager John Moosey said he wants to not only avoid negative impacts to Valley residents’ health, but also running afoul of the EPA.

“And as we learned from Fairbanks, the cost to try to reverse that and prove that is incredible,” Moosey said.

Moosey said – like in Fairbanks – there are opportunities for education and person-to-person communication, like calling individual wood burners to discuss ongoing smoke problems.

Moosey said one big push is getting people to properly split and stack fire wood so that it dries out as much as possible. He also said there may be ways to better define the best times to burn brush: when it’s not too hot, dry and windy – because of wildfire danger – and when it’s not so cold that an inversion layer traps the smoke.

But, the question is, will it be difficult to convince people to get on board?

“People live in Alaska because they like freedom, and we want to honor that,” Moosey said. “We want people to be able to use their choice of heating their homes, and I think with doing some preventative measures, we’re not going to have to worry about it. It’s just going to take a little effort.”

Meanwhile, the Mat-Su Borough issued an air quality alert Thursday for a different reason: wind-blown silt.

The borough says gusting winds up to 55 miles per hour, expected through Friday night, are kicking up silt that can also cause breathing problems, especially for the elderly or anyone with heart or lung conditions.