‘It’s become politicized’: advocates give notice of lawsuit to clean up Fairbanks air

Inversions like this one set in on cold winter days and trap PM2.5 and other pollutants near ground level, creating some of the worst air pollution in the nation that can cause severe respiratory problems and other health threats. (KUAC photo)

Three environmental groups announced Wednesday they intend to sue the federal Environmental Protection Agency for what they say is its failure to require the Fairbanks North Star Borough to reduce air pollution.

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The three groups that announced their intention to sue the EPA include Fairbanks-based Citizens for Clean Air. Member Patrice Lee says the goal is simply to get the agency to do its job in requiring the state and borough to clean up the Fairbanks area’s air.

“The borough’s been working on it, along with the state, for over 10 years, and we haven’t reached the goal of clean air,” Lee said in an interview Wednesday. “The law is clear. We need to obey the law and clean up the air.”

The local group along with the Sierra Club and Anchorage-based Alaska Community Action on Toxics notified the EPA Wednesday of its intent to sue the agency.

Officials with the groups say the lawsuit would seek to require the EPA to enforce provisions of the federal Clean Air Act that require the borough and state to reduce the level of health-damaging PM2.5. The tiny particles emitted by woodstoves and other sources accumulate in the air around Fairbanks during inversions on cold winter days, creating the worst air quality in the nation.

“It’s a matter of health and safety,” Lee said. “Unfortunately it’s become politicized. But I think we view it as necessary to health and well-being.”

Some area residents have for years fought the borough and its efforts to develop and enforce air-quality regulations to reduce PM2.5, especially within the so-called nonattainment area that encompasses much of Fairbanks and North Pole. Last week, opponents of efforts to reduce PM2.5 succeeded in passing ballot measure Proposition 4, which strips the borough of its authority to enforce air quality regulations. But Lee says that’s not why the groups are threatening to sue.

“This wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to Prop 4, by any stretch,” Lee said.

Lee says the groups had been planning for months to issue the notice of intent to sue, because they say the EPA has for a fourth time missed a deadline to improve air quality enough to attain the standards set in the Clean Air Act. The groups say EPA is at fault for the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s failure to come up with a plan to bring the Fairbanks area into compliance with conditions set when EPA declared it a serious nonattainment area.

“They had to come forward with a state implementation plan, a SIP, that would address the issue,” Lee said. “And they have not done that.”

State and borough officials say they’re still working on that plan. If the groups follow through with the lawsuit threat, it would be the third such suit they’ve filed in the past four years over the issue. Lee says today’s notice of intent starts a 60-day clock that could result in a lawsuit.

“The EPA has 60 days to appeal to the state to comply with the requirements of the Clean Air Act,” Lee said. “On day 61, if they have not submitted a SIP that can be considered complete by the EPA, we will file the suit.”

As in previous lawsuits, the groups will be represented by the Denver-based organization Earthjustice. Lee says she and other local air-quality advocates understand the difficulty that many area residents face in converting their home-heating systems from wood to cleaner-burning fuels. And she says she appreciates efforts by many wood-burners to work with the advocates.

“Citizens in the borough have tried to come together, and we do recognize each others’ frustrations,” Lee said. “There are legitimate frustrations both sides of this issue. But, the bottom line is there are many ways to heat a home, and only one way to breathe.”

The borough Assembly will convene a special meeting tonight to talk with legal staff about how to respond to the passage of Proposition 4. They’re also likely to talk about the latest potential air-quality lawsuit.