Fairbanks, Alaska: a community struggling with air quality

by Patrick Cotter, Fairbanks, Alaska

Very cold: Temperature inversions trap smoke from wood burning, leading to some of the worst air quality in the nation. Photo by Patrick Cotter.

Very cold: Temperature inversions trap smoke from wood burning, leading to some of the worst air quality in the nation. Photo by Patrick Cotter.

The car’s thermometer has bottomed out and the fog is so thick I am having difficulty seeing traffic. The radio just confirmed the obvious – it’s real cold: -49⁰F. at the airport and there’s an air quality alert to boot. The air is unhealthy for ‘sensitive’ groups because of the concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5). After 15 winters in Fairbanks, I am no longer surprised by these conditions.

When people typically think of Alaska they picture glaciers, grizzlies, and the gold rush. Or, perhaps, the midnight sun and the aurora borealis. Many visitors can’t imagine that a state with more caribou than people could possibly have air quality issues.

On December 14, 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated portions of the Fairbanks North Star Borough as being in ‘non-attainment’ for PM2.5, meaning the EPA considers air in the Fairbanks area unhealthy to breathe and an attainment plan must be submitted within three years of designation. The plan must include transportation conformity budgets and control measures that require future transportation projects to stay within specified emission levels. Failure to do so can result withheld federal transportation project approvals and funding. The Fairbanks Metropolitan Area Transportation System, the local municipal planning organization that includes the cities of Fairbanks and North Pole, completed a transportation conformity analysis in 2011.

MAP: Nearly 99,000 live in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, a local government unit similar to a county. About the size of New Jersey, the borough includes two cites, Fairbanks and North Pole, and several unincorporated communities.

According to the Fairbanks North Star Borough, wood smoke accounts for more than 60 percent of the PM2.5 particlulates in the Borough. Under closer inspection, the Cold Climate Housing Research Center identified outdoor wood-fired boilers, also referred to as wood-fired hydronic heaters, as producing the most PM2.5 emissions per household.

As heating oil prices began to rise in 2008, many homeowners turned to wood for home heating. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2010 the number of households heating with wood increased over 40 percent in Alaska and, as of 2010, 5 percent of Alaskans used wood as their primary heating source.1 In Fairbanks, where heating oil has hovered around $4 per gallon the past several years, and natural gas is not an option, the increase in wood burning has been even greater.

Situated in a bowl surrounded by rolling hills, Fairbanks regularly experiences temperature inversions during the winter. This situation, which can last for weeks, traps smoke and exhaust in town and leads to PM2.5 levels that are often the worst in the country. Downtown Fairbanks has seen the EPA standard of 35µg/m3 exceeded more than 20 days each of the last six winters, and areas in neighboring North Pole are even worse, with readings exceeding 100µg/m3 common. In fact, the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2013 report identified Fairbanks as the ninth most polluted of 277 metropolitan areas for 24-hour particle pollution and 14th most polluted for annual particle pollution.2 As of February 2013, Fairbanks has seen nearly 50 days above EPA limits during the winter of 2012-2013.

Fairbanks isn’t alone when it comes to PM2.5. Major metropolitan areas in the west such as Salt Lake City, UT Los Angeles, CA and Tacoma, WA are also in non-attainment for PM2.5. The difference is that the primary sources of PM2.5 in these urban areas are industry and automobiles.

Strategies to curb wood burning

Fairbanks area planners, as well as others in Alaska, have several strategies available to curb PM2.5 emissions from wood burning. The EPA’s guidance, “Strategies for Reducing Residential Wood Smoke,” identifies four methods:

  1. Public education: Encourage the burning of dry, seasoned wood
  2. Woodstove/fireplace change-outs and removal: Provide incentives and encourage homeowners to replace old, inefficient woodstoves and fireplaces with cleaner-burning heating appliances
  3. Wood-burning curtailment programs: Develop a curtailment program or institute burn bans
  4. Hydronic heaters: Adopt a “model rule” outlining emission limits, setback distances, and stack heights

In Alaska, Anchorage has adopted municipal code requirements regulating the installation of all new outdoor wood boilers. The City and Borough of Juneau enacted an ordinance that set smoke emission standards. Other states and municipalities have adopted model rules and imposed moratoriums on the installation of unapproved wood burning devices. Washington, for example, took the measure of outlawing outdoor wood boilers all together.

The Cold Climate Housing Research Center, as part of their 2009 investigation into PM2.5 emissions, made several Fairbanks-specific policy recommendations to help reduce residential sources of particulate matter. These recommendations included:

  • Establish a uniform PM2.5 emission limit of 7.5 grams/hour for all prospective sales and existing solid fuel devices
  • Establish a change out program to help residents adapt to new uniform emission limits
  • Require decommissioning of solid fuel burning devices that do not meet the uniform PM2.5 emission limit of 7.5 grams/hour at the time of real estate sale
  • Develop and implement a method to forecast exceedance conditions that can be used to trigger an episodic solid fuel burning restriction
  • Establish a sustained educational program regarding heating with wood
  • Establish a standard to address nuisance emissions

Unfortunately, voters approved Proposition 3 on the October 2012 Election Ballot which prohibits the Fairbanks North Star Borough from regulating materials an individual can use to heat their home.

Further options for Fairbanks

With local planning controls removed, the Fairbanks North Star Borough is left with only two programmatic options aimed at reducing woodsmoke:

  1. A woodstove change out program wherein the Fairbanks North Star Borough reimburses residents who replace older, less efficient woodstoves with newer, more efficient ones
  2. A media campaign that encourages residents to “Split, Stack, and Store” firewood so that it is dry before winter, and consequently will burn cleaner

In the meantime, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has been forced to issue nuisance abatement orders and seek court orders to shut down the worst offenders. The state air quality implementation plan is also being re-worked to accommodate Proposition 3.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough is also looking into programs that would pay residents to switch to oil heat on the coldest winter days. It’s unclear whether the Borough Assembly, the local governing body, will support such a measure, and how the borough would actually administer the program. In the long run, the borough is hoping to bring natural gas from Alaska’s North Slope to Fairbanks. But this scenario could be many years and millions of dollars away.

But for now, Fairbanks planners, decision-makers and the public are left watching local air quality go up in smoke.

Why the concern about particulate matter in the air?

Much smaller than a human hair, fine Particulate Matter (PM) is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, and comes primarily from burning fuels such as gasoline, diesel, wood, and coal. Natural events, such as forest fires, also produce PM2.5, but they occur during the summer when there isn’t a temperature inversion. Fine particulate matter is dangerous because it can become lodged deep in the lungs and can lead to health problems such as asthma, irregular heartbeat, heart attacks, and stroke. The young and the elderly are especially susceptible to the health effects of PM2.5.

Impact on schools: Of the 18 schools in the area, eight of them had air quality worse than EPA’s standard of PM2.5 during the inversion last winter. Source: Air Quality Fairbanks.3

Patrick Cotter is a planner and GIS specialist with PDC Engineers in Fairbanks, Alaska. He has worked on projects across Alaska for the private sector, state government, federal government, and academia.

Published in the October/November 2013 Issue

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