This letter was sent by Clean Air Fairbanks to Governor Sean Parnell with CCs to DEC Commissioner Larry Hartig and Director of DEC Air Quality Division Alice Edwards on October 24, 2010.
Governor Sean Parnell email@example.com
Dear Governor Parnell:
My husband spoke with you on a flight to Fairbanks Friday, October 22. You discussed the smoke problem in the Fairbanks PM 2.5 nonattainment area. You also discussed the concentrated smoke pollution affecting Woodriver Elementary School. Gary drew a map so you could see the proximity of outdoor wood boilers (OWBs) to Woodriver.
We are concerned about the air quality in Fairbanks for several years. We became more actively involved in the issue in an attempt to encourage voters to vote “no” on Proposition A in the Oct. 5 election.
We have met or communicated with the North Star Borough mayor and his staff, Assembly members, the school district Superintendant, the School Board, teachers, principals, and many other concerned parties. I have discussed the issue with Alice Edwards, Director of DEC’s Division of Air Quality, as well as her Fairbanks staff. It is clear that the only path forward in cleaning up Woodriver’s air is through Alaska DEC. However, it does not appear as if DEC is adequately fulfilling its responsibilities.
As my husband mentioned on the plane, the wood and coal smoke problem is not limited to the Woodriver Elementary School and neighborhood, but clearly this is the area where problems have been most acute. Other smoke-affected neighborhoods and schools in the non-attainment area should receive attention also. My husband and I have reviewed the entirety of the 260 air quality complaints received by the Fairbanks North Star Borough for the period of May 2008 through May 2010. Attached is a table with the 75 smoke complaints from the Woodriver Elementary School neighborhood in the University West area of Fairbanks. We encourage you to read through all of these comments. They are alarming! The parents and other relatives of students, principals, teachers, the nurse, other school district employees, and neighbors of Woodriver have repeatedly called out for help during the past two years.
Based on to these 75 public complaints received by the borough, the primary sources of the concentrated, undispersed smoke plaguing Woodriver Elementary School appear to be perhaps five nearby outdoor hydronic boilers and indoor boilers or stoves, burning wood or possibly coal. According to the public complaints and other public records, the two closest OWBs are owned by one individual who owns a group of single-family homes and duplexes. One of these OWBs heats a duplex located across the street from the Woodriver school building; the other OWB heats another duplex across from the Woodriver playground and is 300-ft from a private preschool. According to the public record, recess has been canceled at Woodriver due to smoke, children with asthma have been sent home from school (several in one day), and smoke has been visible in school hallways and classrooms. According to public testimony given to the FNSB school board on Oct. 19, 2010, on occasion children with asthma are not allowed to go out to recess due to smoke. Complainants repeatedly report smelling acrid, foul-smelling smoke, and the smell of burning coal. Also in the record, a statement is given that DEC sent the owner of the OWBs a letter of non-compliance during or before May 2009. In complaints collected in the 12 months since that statement, the borough received 57 more complaints about wood and coal smoke in the area of Woodriver. Complaints even noted problems of children “coughing and having trouble breathing” as they walked into Woodriver due to heavy smoke on days when the borough website recorded the air quality index as GOOD.
To date, no effective action has been taken by anyone. It is now a year and a half since DEC sent the owner the letter of non-compliance. The owner of the OWBs across the street from Woodriver raised the height of the chimneys to about 30 feet, possibly to fulfill a DEC mitigation plan requirement. We visited the site yesterday and saw that these chimneys are at the same level as the school’s “fresh” air intake. We do not believe that the state has resolved the problem at Woodriver.
Alaska DEC regulation 18 AAC 50.110 states “no person may permit any emission which is injurious to human health or welfare, animal or plant life, or property, or which would unreasonably interfere with the enjoyment of life or property.” At Woodriver, children have not been allowed to have outside recess due to the smoke. To keep them safe because it was too smoky inside school hallways and classrooms, children with asthma problems have been sent home. Poor air quality at Woodriver has interfered with the education of children, created an unhealthy environment, and may be resulting in increased levels of asthma and other respiratory diseases. This is a clear violation of 18 AAC 50.110. While the Fairbanks bowl certainly has a significant problem with air quality, the problem at Woodriver has reached an emergency level. These OWB are already being used this winter and need to be stopped now, before an inversion sets in. Air quality is already in the MODERATE range: http://www.co.fairbanks.ak.us/airquality/.
Public health studies have documented grave concerns with fine particle pollution. At a presentation to the FNSB Air Quality Symposium in 2009, Dr. Lori Verbrugge with the Alaska Division of Public Health stated: “available data showed there is increased mortality with short-term exposure to PM 2.5 concentrations that are less than 20 μg/m3.” See page 5: http://co.fairbanks.ak.us/airquality/Docs/Symposium_Summary.pdf. In addition, Rachel Kossover, also with the Alaska Division of Public Health, in 2010 prepared a study documenting the “statistically associated” relationship between mean (average) 24-hour PM 2.5 levels and Fairbanks hospital admissions. See this State of Alaska Epidemiology bulletin: http://www.epi.alaska.gov/bulletins/docs/b2010_26.pdf.
On the airplane you asked my husband Gary, “What do you think should be done?” Following are steps I believe should be taken to correct the problems at Woodriver and other similarly affected schools.
A. To protect public health, Alaska DEC can and should immediately use its discretion to designate an Air Quality Advisory to protect children and schools, 18 AAC 50.245(b). There is no reason why this designation shouldn’t include the entire nonattainment area. The only restriction triggered by an Air Quality Advisory is that wood-heating devices would be prohibited from exceeding 50% opacity limits for more than 15 minutes of any one hour. Hot fires fueled with dry wood easily abide by these limits. Why wait until the air is HAZARDOUS on the air quality index when public health is already a concern?
B. To protect public health and children in our schools, a notice of violation and cease and desist order should be issued for OWBs in close proximity to the school. We also need you to insist that DEC staff aggressively pursue violators of regulations prohibiting:
1. Black smoke from wood-heating devices, 18 AAC 50.075(a)(1).
2. Emissions from wood-heating devices exceeding 50% opacity for more than 15 minutes in any one hour which only takes effect after an Air Quality Advisory is declared by DEC for that area, 18 AAC 50.075(a)(2) & 18 AAC 50.245(b).
3. Emissions from coal burning boilers, excluding condensed water vapor, exceeding 20% opacity for more than three minutes in any one hour are prohibited, unless the boiler began operation before August 15, 1971 in which case the operator may get three additional minutes to comply, 18 AAC 50.055(9)(A).
4. Individuals from interfering “with the attainment or maintenance of ambient air quality standards.” 18 AAC 50.045(c) & 18 AAC 50.010(1)(B)(ii) The current non-attainment area of the borough is under considerable pressure to achieve compliance by 2014. Emissions which exceed ambient air quality standards are interfering with attainment of the PM 2.5 24-hour average 35 microgram per cubic meter standard. [Update: State regulations in have not been updated to include PM 2.5. Yet, State regulations give the significant impact level concentrations of PM 10 in Table 5 above which emissions may be “considered to cause or contribute to a violation of an ambient air quality standard,” 18 AAC 50.215(d).]
C. To establish an adequate enforcement presence, Alaska DEC inspectors need authority to work overtime hours. They currently can work only their regular time. Wood boilers are usually fired up in the early mornings, in the evenings, and on weekends. It has been all too easy to miss inspecting some of the most severe smoke events at night, early in the morning, or after working hours. You just can’t monitor them adequately if you are working only 8 am to 5 pm. Overtime authorization may also allow air quality to be reported on the weekends. Currently, the borough’s website is only updated on weekdays.
D. Alaska DEC should establish a 24-hr smoke complaint line. Families have been woken up at night with their house filling with smoke. Alaska DEC needs to take their calls and be able to respond. If Alaska DEC is unable to respond to complaints at all hours of the day and night, collaborative efforts need to be initiated with the state troopers and City of Fairbanks police as smoke can be life threatening and is known to increase hospitalizations in our community.
E. Ventilation systems in the schools should be upgraded so that they would filter out PM 2.5 particles. Unfortunately, this would not solve the problem outside the buildings. Children would still not be able to go out for recess, which is important for social and physical development and linked to academic success. However, at least it would provide a safe haven for our children during periods of high smoke and allow them to safely exercise during inside recess and gym. Installing such filter would also help reduce particulates in the schools from idling school buses (http://www.epa.gov/otaq/retrofit/documents/f03021.pdf) and allow the schools to be used by sensitive groups during severe summer wildfires. The school district is now considering the feasibility of upgrading the filtration systems. Funding is obviously a concern and may be something the state could provide.
Some have suggested that the PTA or the school district raise funds to buy out the properties most evidently contributing to the problem of smoke pollution at Woodriver. This would be the mother of all bake sales, and presumes the owners would accept the offers. In addition to the outright expense of this approach, it offers no protection from subsequent or adjacent property owners who could install similar inefficient wood or coal-burning devices nearby and generate new sources of smoke. It is impractical for the PTAs or school district to utilize this approach across the nonattainment area.
The costs of high PM 2.5 levels are already being borne by property owners in the borough. A number of houses are for sale in the Woodriver neighborhood, one between the two OWBs. The seller would have to disclose any material problems with the property before a buyer makes an offer or risk treble damages, AS 34.70.090. The widespread awareness that this is a smoke-impaired neighborhood much of the year needs to be disclosed to potential buyers. This area with its proximity to town and a good neighborhood school should be attractive to buyers. In addition, this pollution has increased health costs of borough school employees, unnecessarily burdening all property tax payers. As the exposure is a workplace condition, Workers’ Comp claims may have to be paid. Substitutes have to be paid to cover for lost workdays due to surgery or illness resulting from the pollution and disrupt the class learning schedule. Neighbors have installed expensive HEPA filtration systems to protect themselves and their children. All so a few individuals can save a few thousand dollars by heating with wood or coal.
Elementary schools need to be a safe place where children can learn and play. The effects of PM 2.5 pollution on the health of children and adults have been well documented. We need your help to resolve this emergency situation now. Thank you for taking time to understand and resolve this issue.
Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help with this process.
Clean Air Fairbanks firstname.lastname@example.org
Cc: Larry Hartig, Commissioner, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation email@example.com
Alice Edwards, Director, Division of Air Quality firstname.lastname@example.org