Alaska, feds clash in court over Fairbanks air quality regulation

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Published: Jan. 11, 2023 at 3:10 PM AKST|Updated: Jan. 11, 2023 at 3:12 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTUU) - United States District Court Judge Robert Lasnik has granted a motion for the state of Alaska to intervene in the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of air quality in and around Fairbanks.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation issued a press release on Tuesday questioning the efforts of the federal environmental regulating agency. The nonattainment area around Fairbanks has been under a Fine Particulate State Implementation Plan, which the EPA failed to approve or disapprove by the stated deadline of June 15 of 2022.

Wood-burning stoves around Fairbanks have been scrutinized for years, and part of the SIP includes a move toward cleaner-burning models.

“These devices contribute nearly 90% of the health-threatening pollution that disproportionally impacts vulnerable populations,” the DEC release said.

However, the DEC release asserts that the EPA failed to oversee and certify these woodstoves and that the Alaska DEC, Fairbanks North Star Borough, and other local governing organizations have made progress on air quality over the last 14 years. If recommended changes from the EPA are not implemented, the DEC release said that over $37 million in federal highway funding would be withheld annually.

President Joe Biden’s administration proposed more rigorous standards earlier this year.

“With this proposed disapproval, EPA is sending a clear message that the local plan is not good enough,” DEC Air Director Jason Olds said in the release. “They believe the federal government and folks in Seattle know what is best for Fairbanks and North Pole.”

The federal government granted the Alaska DEC $4 million in May of 2018 to help address the problem, which has been a longstanding one in Fairbanks due to the popularity of wood-burning stoves around Fairbanks. Regulations for air quality in Fairbanks date back to 2016 and limit things such as commercial wood sellers selling wet wood, listing allowable fuels for wood and coal fired heating devices, and prohibiting fuels for such devices, as well as prohibiting open burning between Nov. 1 and March 31 each winter.

“DEC is committed to bringing healthy air to North Pole and Fairbanks,” DEC Commissioner Jason Brune said. “However, we will not sit back and let the EPA mandate hundreds of millions of dollars of additional costs to Interior residents without associated health benefits. Our SIP highlights this commitment by focusing on the root cause of the pollution and developing a path forward that protects the community’s ability to use wood stoves while not breaking the bank.”

The DEC release says that they sought guidance from the EPA’s national wood stove certification program, which then “uncovered a program in such disarray that EPA’s Inspector General’s Office opened an ongoing investigation.”

A public comment period on proposed EPA regulations is open until March 13 and will include a public hearing in Fairbanks.

“Alaska needs to be a part of this, because Alaskans know best how to balance taking care of our communities and the environment,” Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said in a press release from the Department of Law. “We want to ensure that costly and impractical control measures potentially imposed by the EPA aren’t adversely impacting our communities with no actual benefit.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the name of Robert Lasnik, the U.S. District Court Judge who granted Alaska’s motion to intervene.