Borough Assembly OKs Testing for promising woodstove emissions-control technology

The Oekotube electrostatic precipitator, lower-left corner, and other components that Olson and a couple of friends installed on the stack of a woodstove that helps heat her veterinary clinic in North Pole. Sherman, Olson’s 1-year-old border collie mix, mugs for the camera.
(Credit Jeanne Olson)

The Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly approved a resolution that supports and authorizes testing of a type of air-pollution control technology that local advocates say will clean smoke from woodstoves and help improve the area’s air quality. The advocates say they hope the data they’ll develop through their testing will convince federal environmental regulators to include electrostatic precipitators on its list of EPA-approved technologies that could enable homeowners and businesses to continue operating their wood- or pellet stoves during burn bans.

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All eight Assembly members present for the special meeting voted to support the resolution co-introduced by Mayor Karl Kassel and Assemblymen Matt Cooper, Van Lawrence and Lance Roberts. Cooper says they drew up the measure in response to requests by members of the public who say electrostatic precipitators could offer an alternative to more heavy-handed responses – like burn bans.

“It doesn’t solve all the problems,” Cooper said, “it doesn’t have all the answers, but it’s the first step, and we have to take the first step to start to look at alternative ways to do this.”

Cooper says the measure authorizes borough staff to participate in a study of electrostatic precipitator devices, which use an electrical charge to remove health-damaging fine particulates from smoke.

“This resolution directs the administration to start working toward finding a way to test them, see if they work,” Cooper said.

But clear-air advocate Jeanne Olson says the local group she heads up has already been testing electrostatic precipitators in North Pole, one connected to a wood stove at her veterinary clinic, another connected to a residential wood-pellet stove.

“When a pellet stove has one of these installed, it’s burning so clean that sometimes we can’t detect particulate,” Olson said.

Olson says the device she’s testing, called an Oekotube (pronounced “Ecotube”), cleans up emissions from her wood stove so thoroughly that it’s comparable to those of a cleaner-burning pellet stove.

“When I have the Oekotube on, it’s typically measuring about the same levels as a pellet stove without one of them on,” Olson said.

Patrice Lee was among several people who spoke in support of the technology during a public hearing on the resolution. Lee, like Olson, is a longtime member of Clean Air Fairbanks. And Lee says she was skeptical when Olson first asked her to help test the Eco-Tube – until she reviewed the data.

“I was blown away when I saw what wasn’t going into the air,” Lee said.

North Pole resident Wendy Mannan said she’s among many who believe the technology could help people who heat their homes mainly with wood and can’t afford more expensive fuels – and who often disregard restrictions against burning during air-pollution alerts.

“If there isn’t a way that this administration and the community can come together and find a way that people can burn cleanly and cheaply, then next year people are going to continue to ignore the burn ban,” Mannan said. “They just can’t afford the fuel oil.”

Borough Air Quality Manager Nick Czarnecki says he’s glad that advocates for electrostatic precipitators, also called ESPs, along with members of other community interest groups, will be working with borough on developing a testing regime for the technology.

“One of my biggest concerns is that we get all of the stakeholders on board,” Czarnecki said. “And that we figure out what is the test data that we need to show that these ESPs are going to work for an exemption to the burn bans.”

Olson says she wants to ensure citizens lead the effort, due to the level of mistrust many area residents have for the borough, because of its efforts to enforce the federally mandated crackdown on the area’s air pollution. And she says citizens groups are capable of accomplishing tasks more quickly than bureaucracies.