Gas Distribution System: Long Term Solution for Air Quality in Fairbanks

Less than one month ago Fairbanks North Star Borough Residents voted to get rid of the borough authority to regulate air quality, a measure most local communities have in place for public health reasons

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by Megan Mazurek

FAIRBANKS - Less than one month ago Fairbanks North Star Borough Residents voted to get rid of the borough authority to regulate air quality, a measure most local communities have in place for public health reasons.

With temperatures well below in mid November interior residents are using what they can to heat their homes, methods that some say do more harm than good.

Frigid air in the far north means fine particulate pollution known as pm2.5, it's caused by burning materials like wet wood and coal and over time can cause serious health hazards.

Some homeowners feel the borough should try harder to regulate and have taken steps to control their own air quality, a small measure in comparison to the 20,000 chords of firewood said to be burned every winter in Fairbanks

"We just really ought to have some better solution then being able to burn anything you want in any appliance you want," said David van den Berg, Fairbanks homeowner. "Poor air crosses my property boundary really quickly and all we've been able to do aside from going to talk with our neighbors and ask them not to burn trash is to install an air filter."

Borough officials say the state has until December 14 to submit a plan for air quality control to the Environmental Protection Agency."The state of Alaska is the one who really has to step up to the control measures," said Mayor Luke Hopkins, Fairbanks North Star Borough. The agency won't except voluntary measures, like the educational campaign encouraging residents to split, stack, store and save their wood well in advance."Hopefully we get it as dry as we can," Hopkins said. "Because wet wood contributes greatly to that pm.25 particulates in the air."

Mayor Hopkins does see a long term fix and it involves trucking natural gas from the north slope down the Dalton Highway to be used in a gas distribution system. An analysis on the project found a distribution system could be built as early as 2016, if funding and construction contracts were in place.

"If natural gas got out to the community as quick as it can, to as many residents as we could in the shortest amount of time, we don't have an air quality problem anymore.," Hopkins said.

For now, residents will battle the below freezing temperatures using wood, oil and coal but when natural gas enters the picture Hopkins hopes residents will make the move to the future fix. "Gas will do more than reduce the cost to homeowners," van den Berg said. "Gas is a spectrum solution to a lot of the challenges from bad air to the amount of disposable income that's going into heating our homes."

Currently about a 1,000 Fairbanks customers use natural gas from Cook Inlet to heat their homes.

Short term ideas to help curb poor air quality, aside from the wood stove change out program, include paying residents for the oil they burn at times of high air pollution.

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