Twenty newly released sworn affidavits reveal chilling evidence of injuries and harm attributed to two wood-fired hydronic heaters across the street from Woodriver Elementary School. Affidavits were submitted by agencies, representatives of the school, teachers, other school staff, and neighbors. These public records were released by the clerk of the court, (907)452-9277.
State v. Straughn (Alaska Superior Court, filed 1/3/2013). Follow on CourtView: case number 4FA-13-01205CI, plaintiff – State of Alaska Department of Conservation, defendants – Andrew and Gloria Straughn
The Woodriver affidavits are a window into the horror and dismay of residents under this drawn-out assault on their lives, health, and children as bureaucratic disregard and anti-regulation ideology from the state’s highest levels of government failed to act.
As citizens, we reported it as if you would report a crime—naively believing that they would hear that complaint and take action, just like as if you’d called the police. Here I am 4½ years later, as are others, wondering why it took that long…. Bring it to the public’s attention that we have been hurt by this. We have been made sick by this. —Dawn Brashear, Woodriver staff, 3/4/2013
The following Clean Air Fairbanks report applies the evidence from the Woodriver case to advocate for victims of hydronic heaters and hold those responsible accountable for their injuries.
The Crime of Smoke at Woodriver
State v. Straughn, case number 4FA-13-01205CI, was filed in Superior Court January 3, 2013. The civil case led to a preliminary injunction order February 4, 2013 that found Andrew and Gloria Straughn’s two wood-fired hydronic heaters located across the street from Woodriver Elementary School caused a “public nuisance” and ordered their operation to cease. Woodriver Elementary School is located in the Fairbanks neighborhood of University West. This historic case is the first and only enforcement action the state has taken to reduce fine particulate pollution in Fairbanks North Star Borough, and the only action raised against a hydronic heater in Alaska.
The twenty affidavits now in public court records document grave harms including multiple asthma attacks in children, reduced lung function, eye irritation, chronic steroid treatment, chronic infections, surgeries, and hospitalizations. One affiant reports being reduced to 20% lung function. Local news reports another affiant died of a stroke.
The affidavit of Ali Hamade, PhD, environmental health program manager for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services states: “Numerous studies have shown that exposure to the concentrations of PM-2.5 that have been measured at the Woodriver School could result in the following health impacts: aggravated asthma; chronic bronchitis; reduced lung function; irregular heartbeat; increased hospitalizations and emergency room visits for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases; non-fatal heart attacks; and premature death in people with heart or lung disease.”
Dr Hamade’s affidavit references a 2010 study by Rachel Kossover, MPH, RD, with the Division of Public Health Epidemiology Section on the association between PM 2.5 and Fairbanks hospital admissions. 5,718 hospital visits were analyzed. The mean 24-hour PM 2.5 level was 20.1 μg/m3. The study revealed that each 10 μg/m3 increase in PM 2.5 concentrations resulted in a 7% increased risk for stroke-related hospital visit for people under age 65; a 6% increased risk for stroke-related hospital visit for people 65 years or older; and a 6% increased risk for a respiratory illness-related hospital visit for people under age 65.
The state delayed enforcement for 4½ years as it mustered up the will, while the evidence of injury mounted. Installed and first operated in the fall of 2008, the boilers received their first complaints at that time. Residents made every effort to stop the smoke and reduce the harm: requests to the owners; 358 complaints to agencies (42% identify the boilers as the source); public hearing testimony; protests; backing seemingly responsive candidates; and appealing to voters with the citizens’ initiative Proposition 2 in October 2011 by Healthy Air Now for Prop 2. Other efforts included agency communications with the owners, dozens of DEC Air Quality Advisories, a Borough offer to remove the boilers for $7,500 each, and installation of a school air filtration system in February 2011. (Woodriver’s air filtration system cost about $67,500, according to the affidavit of Principal Grant Guy.) Over the years, State Representative Tammie Wilson (R-North Pole) encouraged the owners to take steps to reduce the smoke. The owners tried taller chimneys, split wood, and free installation of two $2,395 ClearStak CS-100 electric retrofit afterburners in December 2010. Nothing worked. Reports of the smoke continued until February 14, 2013, when the owners finally ceased operation of the hydronic heaters in compliance with the preliminary injunction order.
A Community Under Assault from Smoke Pollution
In 2009, the populated area of the Borough was designated in PM 2.5 nonattainment, the only area in Alaska so designated under the Federal Clean Air Act. To meet federal standards, the state was required to file a State Implementation Plan (SIP) by December 14, 2012. The plan is now over 160 days overdue. The state’s failure to submit a SIP risks federal sanctions including loss of highway funds and requirements that will force higher electric rates. Alaska statutes do not allow citations or tickets for air pollution. Thus, the state’s only enforcement option is to take violators to court one-by-one, at substantial expense and delay. On October 6, 2012, local voters approved the citizens’ initiative Proposition 3. The Assembly used the Prop 3 initiative as a referendum to repeal all authority for air pollution control, including the ability to cite or ticket violators.
Recorded PM 2.5 concentrations during the 2012/2013 winter were higher than 500 US cities—higher than all but one city in China, with nearly 9 million residents. In 2012, monitors in the worst hit area, North Pole’s “the Rectangle of Death” (named by agency professionals) recorded 50 days exceeding federal standards. Wood smoke accounts for between 62.7% and 81.2% of winter PM 2.5, according to a 2012 source apportionment study for Fairbanks and North Pole. Often called outdoor wood boilers, hydronic heaters “emit significantly more particulate matter than other residential wood burning devices and short term particulate matter spikes can be extremely high.” (NESCAUM 2006)
In 2013, a FNSB proposal to build Elbasan Acres, an elementary school and 200-home subdivision on 634 acres of Borough land in North Pole, has received significant opposition. Residents objected to the danger of siting a school in an area known to have one of the highest concentrations of fine particulate pollution in the nation. Residents also objected to the harm to private property owners from swamping an already-saturated real estate market. On Nov 18, 2012, School District Superintendent Pete Lewis endorsed the site for two schools:
A portion of the proposed Elbesan (sic) Acres school site should work well for a new elementary school. The remaining dedicated property could conceivably serve as a secondary school site if one is needed in the future.
Although not consulted by the Borough, Jim Conner, PhD, director of FNSB’s air quality program, acknowledged the area’s high air pollution levels and raised concerns it will interfere with meeting attainment goals:
This development (Elbasan Acres) is very close to an already polluted area and will likely contribute to more wood/coal smoke in the borough non-attainment area. —James Conner 4/16/2013
To oppose Elbasan Acres, Jeanne Olson, DVM, appealed the plan in February. On May 30, the FNSB Planning Commission denied the appeal, 5 to 2. Dr Olson has until June 3 to file an appeal in Superior Court. Contact her to offer support: Jeanne Olson <email@example.com> (907)488-8800.
The example of Elbasan Acres shows the Borough’s continuing disregard for any responsibility to protect public health or provide safe schools for our children. The Woodriver case teaches us we cannot passively wait for agencies to step forward to solve the epidemic of harm from hydronic heaters. Evidence of injuries is now in court evidence. Evidence of the lack of effective alternatives to enforcement is now in court evidence. Causing permanent injury to innocent victims, in reckless endangerment of our health and safety with knowledge that death or serious harm will result, is criminal and should be prosecuted as such. Saving money is not a defense, but motive. Civil liability for the injuries and lack of responsible and timely action by responsible parties weigh heavily on owners, the school district, FNSB, and the state. It is time insurers recognize the risk of carrying policies on properties with hydronic heaters. It is time to apply pressure with strategic focus to force government to stop protecting polluters of the air we need to breathe and to take responsible action to prevent the harm.
The worsening plague of smoke pollution in Fairbanks and North Pole has led to a rash of news stories in the The Los Angeles Times, Reuters, Time, NPR Science Friday – text and audio, Alaska Dispatch, and KTUU, and repeated coverage in the Anchorage Daily News, AP Wire, APRN, KUAC, and the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.