Smoke has made a habit of interfering with education at Woodriver Elementary School since the winter of 2008/2009.
Perhaps it was just a coincidence that in 2008, the owner of two newly constructed duplexes (and over $1.5 million in real estate nearby) fired up two outdoor wood boilers (OWBs) across from the school on Palo Verde Avenue and Trinidad Drive.
Complaints from smoke began pouring in early in the winter of 2008 and continue as recently as today (Feb. 17, 2011). Complaints from Woodriver Elementary School professionals cite smoke as the reason children had six asthma attacks (see “Excessive woodsmoke” records below).
Now, at school district expense, a $44,000 air filtration system has been installed to keep the smoke out of the school. The FDNM reported on the new air filtration system being installed at one of the district’s 30+ schools, “Woodriver Elementary gets experimental ventilation upgrade to fight area’s air pollution” 2/13/2011.
If effective in reducing fine particulate pollution inside the school, Woodriver’s new filters cannot protect children outside on the school grounds, in their beds in the Woodriver neighborhood, or at Watershed Charter School less than a mile to the south. See this map: PM 2.5 Map for Woodriver Elementary & Watershed Charter.
Will a child playing outside on the playground swing or slide have an asthma attack before DEC stops the smoke? Who is DEC protecting by delaying enforcement action, children or the polluter?
Tell the Governor to:
- Authorize overtime for DEC smoke inspectors in the FNSB nonattainment area;
- Send DEC to inspect the Woodriver Elementary School grounds in the morning before children arrive;
- Have DEC identify the smoke source(s) and issue an Order to stop it (as they did on the Steese coal smoker);
- Support DEC’s responsibility to protect public health from smoke pollution; and
- Don’t wait for one more child to have an asthma attack because of smoke.
Send your message to:
- Governor Sean Parnell firstname.lastname@example.org
- John Burns – Attorney General email@example.com
- Commissioner Larry Hartig – DEC firstname.lastname@example.org
- Commissioner Mike Hanley – Ed & Early Development email@example.com
- Director Alice Edwards – Div of Air Quality firstname.lastname@example.org
- Senator Joe Thomas – Senate District D Senator_Joe_Thomas@legis.state.ak.us
- Rep David Guttenberg – House District 8 Representative_David_Guttenberg@legis.state.ak.us
- Senator John B Coghill Senator_John_Coghill@legis.state.ak.us
- Senator Joe Paskvan Senator_Joe_Paskvan@legis.state.ak.us
- Rep Scott Kawasaki Representative_Scott_Kawasaki@legis.state.ak.us
- Rep Bob Miller Representative_Bob_Miller@legis.state.ak.us
- Rep Steve Thompson Representative_Steve_Thompson@legis.state.ak.us
- Please CC your message to email@example.com
How much does the new filtration system cost? The cost of the new filters alone was $44,000. The FDNM article noted the filtration system had additional fixed costs of “labor, lost routine maintenance time, and time for planning.” In round figures with fixed costs included, the filtration system may have cost the district one full-time teacher, interfering with the education of every child in the district. School funding is primarily from property taxes paid by borough property tax owners.
Was the expense justified? Yes. The filtration system may pay for itself over time in reduced costs of medical treatments and fewer days of missed work. The safety of 446 Woodriver children and school employees is of paramount concern. Now that the district has installed the filters, which we hope will keep smoke out of the school, the district should seek legal recourse to recover its costs. Air pollution filtration systems should not take taxpayer funds allocated for educating our children.
Do the new filters end the ordeal of smoke for Woodriver? No. Hopes are high that the new filters will protect the air inside the school. According to an email from School Board President Kristina Brophy on February 15:
The administration continues to address the issue and are hopeful that the new filtration system, once installed completely, will alleviate the problem.”
However, Woodriver’s playground and drop-off and pick-up areas are still unprotected. Children playing hard at recess are still inhaling higher concentrations of PM 2.5. Smoke-damaged school employees are still serving outside bus and recess duty without respiratory protection. During the current winter, prevailing wind currents have pushed the smoke into the neighborhood south of Woodriver, toward the 188 students of Watershed Charter School where outside activities are integral to the curriculum.
From the public record of complaints:
“Excessive woodsmoke” causes students “difficulty breathing”
- Jan. 12, 2009, the Woodriver principal reported that a parent had requested she call DEC since her child was the second to go home that day due to an asthma attack. The principal said “smoke was blowing towards the school today.” But she’d “gotten used to smoke in the school and hadn’t noticed until the parent pointed it out.”
- Nov. 18, 2009, the school nurse at Woodriver Elementary reported four children had asthma attacks that day and that “the woodsmoke was bothering students.”
- Dec. 8, 2009 the principal filed a complaint of “excessive woodsmoke” but DEC recorded “Response pending‐ due to work load.”
- Jan. 25, 2010, a new principal reported that the OWBs on Trinidad and Palo Verde were “producing a lot of smoke. It is very bad, can smell the smoke on the kids after recess.”
- March 19, 2010, the nurse reported “Smoke in school building, air around building and playground filled with heavy smoke, difficulty breathing x2 students.”
Repeated DEC inspections found not one air quality violation although DEC did send a compliance letter to the owner of the two OWBs. A “letter” is not an “order” and does not require any action of the operator.
Professionals at Woodriver cited smoke for at least six asthma attacks. Children who have asthma attacks are sent home from school, interfering with their education but necessary to safeguard their lives. Recess at Woodriver has been canceled for all children, and children with heightened sensitivities to smoke have been kept in during recess. School employees reported impacts to their health due to smoke inhalation at multiple public hearings and meetings. Two nearby neighbors contracted asthma since 2008 which they attribute to the OWBs. Prior to Nov. 2008, no smoke problems were recorded near Woodriver Elementary.
Isn’t DEC’s job to protect public health? Of course. In response to a parent’s complaint in April 2009, DEC responded, “DEC and FNSB are working together to come up with solutions that will work for the Fairbanks area.” After years of watching the agencies do nothing, the school district took the first step to protect children and district employees. Public records indicate the owner of the OWBs made one rather small political contribution to a single candidate so that is unlikely to explain the lack of state action on the OWBs across from Woodriver.
The most likely explanation appears to be DEC is under-staffed and isn’t up to the job of enforcing state rules on woodsmoke. DEC has repeatedly handed responsibility for the Woodriver OWBs off to the Borough. On Feb. 26, 2010, DEC recorded in their files, “Previous investigations from ADEC confirmed that smoke can be present in significant quantities in that area. The Department decided to let the North Star Borough take care of the problem.” On Nov. 2, 2010, DEC again recorded that it “had decided to let the FNSB take the lead in addressing this complaint.”
It’s never been the Borough’s job to enforce state air quality laws and regulations. That’s DEC’s job. Operators know DEC inspector’s hours and simply time their smoky events to avoid being caught. It doesn’t support DEC smoke inspectors when the Governor, their boss, recently defended individuals’ right to heat with cheap fuels such as wood or coal, as though protecting public health isn’t the state’s statutory responsibility.
Clean air is essential to every breathing moment.” — From DEC’s Division of Air Quality website
Conserving, improving and protecting Alaska’s natural resources and environment to enhance the health, safety, economic and social well being of Alaskans.”– From DEC’s main website