EPA gives partial approval to state plan for improving Interior Alaska air quality

Much progress has been made to reduce wintertime particulate pollution, but the federal agency, state and borough have more work to do, officials say

By: Yereth Rosen

Smokestack emissions are seen along the Fairbanks skyline on March 1, 2023. At left is the coal-fired heat and power plant on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. The Fairbanks North Star Borough has long been plagued by wintertime particulate pollution that can create health hazards, but new scientific information indicates that sulfur dioxide emitted by power plants is not contributing to the problem that is created largely by woodsmoke. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Federal regulators have dropped a proposal to require ultra-low-sulfur diesel use to help clear winter air pollution in the Fairbanks area, accepting state arguments that such a mandate would not be a cost-effective way to address the problem.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday made final its decision on Alaska’s plan to reduce particulate pollution in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, which in winter can be some of the worst in the nation. The decision will require further action by the state.

The EPA action partially approves and partially disapproves of the latest plan developed by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to comply with the Clean Air Act in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

Approved elements included some concessions by the EPA to state arguments about air-quality compliance in the population center of Interior Alaska.

Portions of the plan that were disapproved are likely to be addressed in coming months, said Bill Dunbar, a spokesperson for the EPA’s Seattle-based Region 10 office. The state is preparing an updated implementation plan that is expected to be submitted next summer, he said.

The EPA had originally faulted the state for not requiring the use of ultra-low-sulfur fuel for heating devices using diesel. But after months of review, scientific analysis and consultation, the federal agency agreed with the state position on that subject.

Another point of contention had been the degree to which sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants in the region contribute to the particulate problem. The EPA had previously sought a mandate for new controls on those emissions, but the state argued that science showed they were not important contributors.

New data from University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists supports that state position, Dunbar said, though a bit more work is needed to explain that in the upcoming state plan.

“DEC and EPA are working together to create a model that will show – is likely to show – that sulfur dioxide is not the precursor that it was once thought to be,” he said.

For the state and the borough, the EPA’s decision to drop any mandate for ultra-low-sulfur diesel was “totally a huge win,” said Kelly Rawalt, public information officer for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation

As for power plants’ sulfur-dioxide emissions, the state’s new plan that is in the works is expected to account for the scientific evidence that has been newly gathered, Rawalt said.

Still to be resolved, Dunbar said, is the EPA’s need for some documentation about how air emissions will be addressed in some specific categories in the borough. Some of those categories are small, like coffee roasters, while some are a bit broader, like light-duty vehicles that idle outside of schools during cold spells.

“Air quality in Fairbanks is as complicated a public health issue as we deal with at EPA,” Casey Sixkiller, the EPA’s Pacific Northwest regional administrator, said in a statement. “Getting the plan right requires understanding evolving science, and we think we’re much closer to a solution than we’ve ever been.”

The Fairbanks North Star Borough is vulnerable to particulate pollution because of its location and residents’ reliance on burning wood and other solids for heat. The mountains surrounding the area create atmospheric inversions that trap stagnant, cold air over low-lying population areas.

Already this winter, there have been air-quality alerts in the borough serious enough to trigger temporary halts to burning of solid fuel.

The particulate problem in the borough is so persistent that it has inspired a National Science Foundation-funded research program called the Alaskan Layered Pollution and Chemical Analysis, or ALPACA. That program, which provided the recent data on power plant emissions, is expected to provide information useful to other far-north regions facing similar air-quality problems.

The main source of particulate pollution in the Fairbanks area remains woodburning, and that has been the focus of efforts over the years to reduce pollution.

Last month, the EPA awarded $10 million from its Targeted Airshed Grant program to help continue that progress. The grant was given to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and is intended to help the borough continue to remove and replace pollution-producing heating devices with those that burn natural gas or propane, the EPA said. The grant is also intended to help expand natural gas availability in the region.

Over the years, the federal agency has provided $42 million in grants to help clean Fairbanks air, including the most recent grant, Dunbar said.

Even though there are still days when particulate pollution shrouds parts of the Fairbanks and North Pole areas, there has been considerable progress over the years, with measured pollution cut by as much as half, according to reports from the state and the borough.

Through a borough change-out program, 3,576 wood stoves or other heating devices that burn solid fuels have been removed or converted, the EPA said.