News-Miner opinion: The news that the state is seeking to split the borough nonattainment in two is the latest wrinkle in an ongoing fight to clean up the area’s air that has itself been, in a word, divisive. The proposed separation of the Fairbanks and North Pole areas for the purposes of addressing PM 2.5 pollution has some local stakeholders up in arms, but it’s an appropriate move to help identify problem areas with more specificity and tailor efforts — and funds — based on the areas most in need of help.
The idea behind the proposed split is that the two areas monitored for PM 2.5 pollution — the greater Fairbanks area and the North Pole and Badger Road area that has seen the worst of the particulate pollution so far — are distinctly different in the issues that need addressing in each. The city of Fairbanks, for instance, already has banned the use of hydronic wood and coal boilers within the city limits, and though wildfires have periodically caused severe PM 2.5 pollution in the summers, Fairbanks hasn’t recorded an air quality violation at the borough’s downtown monitor since 2013. In North Pole and along Badger Road, however, air quality problems appear to be as severe as ever, with the first-ever burn ban for those for whom wood or coal aren’t the only economic source of heat going into effect earlier this winter. Even though this winter has so far been relatively mild and inversions have been few and far between, the area has flirted with unhealthy levels of PM 2.5 pollution multiple times.
Recognizing the different levels of severity in the two areas of the borough’s current nonattainment area, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is petitioning for a split. The proposed move, which it could take the Environmental Protection Agency 18 months or more to approve or deny, has caused concern in some quarters.
The opposition to the split isn’t restricted to one camp in the air quality debate. Those who reside in the area and oppose air quality regulations put in place by the borough are upset that residents in other areas could make decisions about pollution regulations in their neighborhoods. Others who support more stringent regulation fear the splitting of the nonattainment area could lead to a lack of investment by the greater community in addressing North Pole’s more localized and severe pollution. And North Pole Mayor Bryce Ward said he thinks the attempted split is a long shot, and he’s concerned residents of Fairbanks and elsewhere in the borough will view the PM 2.5 pollution issue as North Pole’s problem to solve.
Those concerns, however, don’t square with action taken on the issue. Despite the fact that North Pole’s air quality issues have long been more severe than those in Fairbanks, neither the state nor the borough have pushed off responsibility for the issue to the city. In fact, they have been proactive in directing funds and positive efforts to the areas of greatest need. State and borough funds for the wood stove change-out program have disproportionately gone to high-pollution areas in North Pole and on Badger Road, and the Interior Gas Utility intentionally chose the area for Phases 1 and 2 of its natural gas distribution build-out. When natural gas reaches the Interior, North Pole and the surrounding neighborhoods will be the first to get it.
ADEC’s proposal to split the nonattainment area in the borough reflects the reality that the air pollution issue isn’t homogenous across Fairbanks and North Pole. It could also spare local facilities such as hospitals and power plants massive expenses from applying remediation plans that would have little positive benefit for local air. Focusing more closely on areas with persistently poor air quality is the best way to ensure the state and borough make as much headway as possible in addressing the local pollution problem.