Posts Tagged ‘FNSB school district’

Very high smoke opacity during DEC Air Quality Advisory, Feb. 17, 2011 @ 7:30 am; smoke heading south from Trinidad toward Watershed

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: 


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


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Update: Hourly PM 2.5 monitoring reports from the Fairbanks North Star Borough for North Pole are now viewable online. Read the post: “New Hourly AQ Reports Show Santa in Smoke Trouble.”

Newly revised School District regulation 960.1 allows healthy children to play outside at recess until particulate levels reach 176 micrograms per cubic meter. This “guideline” appears to be based on one-hour particulate levels. However, one-hour levels are not currently available to parents, nurses, principals, or even the Superintendent.

The revised regulation lowers the guideline from 200 micrograms per cubic meter to 176. For the previous version and chart of the regulations, view Clean Air Fairbanks’ earlier post on School District Regs on Unhealthy Particulate Levels. Progress, true, but not nearly enough for our children.

The only PM 2.5 numbers available for principals and school nurses are 24-hour averages. They are the same numbers available to you: FNSB’s Air Quality Index. During episodes of air quality concern, this site is updated by the Borough once a day on weekdays only.

If principals wait to see 176 micrograms before cancelling outdoor recess or athletic activities based on the only numbers available, these 24-hour levels, children may be exercising vigorously until AQI concentrations reach VERY UNHEALTHY. This is especially dangerous if no special regard is taken to protect children with health conditions such as bronchitis, asthma, or heart problems.

View Judging Particulate Levels in Your Area to better understand the levels, categories, and cautionary statements.

Contact the School Board to request regulation 960.1 be revised again to:

  1. Use the 24-hour column, not the 1-hr column, as it is the only number available,
  2. Initiate action to protect healthy children at UNHEALTHY FOR SENSITIVE GROUPS levels (35.5-55.4 µg) not waiting until UNHEALTHY (55.5-150.4 µg) or VERY UNHEALTHY (150.5-250.4 µg), and
  3. To protect health-compromised children, consider extra precautions at MODERATE levels (15.5-35.4 µg).

Contact your School District members & the Superintendent:

If you prefer, ask Sharon Tuttle, Executive Assistant to the Superintendent, to forward your message to the School Board sharon.tuttle@k12northstar.org 452-2000 x 401


School District regulations cannot advise waiting to cancel recess, athletic practice, or athletic competitions until levels are VERY UNHEALTHY. Healthy children are considered members of the “sensitive groups” category. To provide adequate protection for healthy children, precautions need to be taken at UNHEALTHY FOR SENSITIVE GROUPS particulate levels, or lower. Children with health conditions such as bronchitis, asthma, or heart problems are considered “unusually sensitive” to PM 2.5 pollution and may need extra precautions even at MODERATE particulate levels.

Listen to KUAC’s radio news story 12/14/2010 on the School District’s decision to revise the guidelines from 200 to 176 micrograms/cubic meter and the district’s challenge to ensure indoor air is clean.

The FDNM covered the same decision, overlooking that 1-hour PM 2.5 levels are unavailable, “Fairbanks school district tightens air quality restrictions for recess, practices” 12/15/2010.

Many, many people do not understand the need to protect themselves from high particulate levels. Clean Air Fairbanks observed a team of young runners from UAF, wearing reflective vests for safety, yet exercising in unhealthy, smoke-choked air. Principals, school nurses, and coaches aren’t trained or prepared in any way to make informed decisions on how to best protect individuals under their responsibility from elevated PM 2.5. These are the individuals we’re counting on to protect our children.

When PM 2.5 levels are high, children are often kept in from recess because of the cold so indoor air may be the greater concern. During inside recess children typically run around inside the school building. Yet, we’ve seen no data to show indoor air is any cleaner than outside air on days with high PM 2.5. Typical ventilation systems exchange inside “dirty” air for “cleaner” outside air. During PM 2.5 pollution events, those ventilation systems draw particulates into the school bldg and spread it throughout halls, classrooms, and gyms, just as has happened in smoke-impacted homes across the borough.

Recess and outside athletic activities promote physical and social development and are linked to academic success. Clearly, air quality data relevant to each school would empower principals to make informed decisions for our children.

Yet, cost estimates have not been made available for 1) installing monitors near schools to collect 1-hour particulate levels, 2) updating reporting of Borough data so real-time reports are available to principals and the public, 3) conducting an indoor air sampling study at district schools during UNHEALTHY FOR SENSITIVE GROUPS particulate levels, or 4) if justified by the indoor air quality study or other data, installing indoor air filtration at about 30 district schools.

Controlling PM 2.5 pollution at its source is necessary for the future of our community and cost-effective. A handful of smoky OWBs and coal burners in one neighborhood may result in millions of dollars in additional health care expenses, absentee days from work or school, lower property values, indoor air filtration, etc. And that is for just one school. Our School District has 7,000 students under its care. Controlling PM 2.5 pollution is every resident and taxpayer’s concern and needs to be addressed at every level, from the individual on up.

When our children are in danger, the future of our community is at risk.

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In Fairbanks on Dec. 2, 2010 at  the downtown monitor (675 7th Ave), the 24-hour average for PM 2.5 pollution reached a high for the winter of 60.7 micrograms per cubic meter, code red UNHEALTHY. The next day, the 24-hour average dropped to 28.5 micrograms, making the Air Quality Index code yellow MODERATE and meeting the state and federal 24-hr average standard of 35 micrograms. For the current update, view the FNSB’s Air Quality Index.

To assist in evaluating the meaning of the numbers and your risk, see Judging Particulate Levels in Your Area. The air quality index levels and categories were established by EPA to protect public health. The Borough is required to provide these reports on a daily basis. View this report on Guidelines for Reporting of Daily Air Quality prepared by EPA in 2006. To convert 24-hr microgram concentration into the category, color code, and overall AQI level, use the AIRNow calculator: concentration to AQI. Knowledge is power.

Every child is included in the “SENSITIVE GROUPS” category. Children with heart or lung conditions are “unusually sensitive” to PM 2.5 pollution and may need extra precautions even at MODERATE particulate levels.

Local Air quality was UNHEALTHY on Dec. 2, 2010. Clean Air Fairbanks was informed of one child tearing up as she was going into school because of the smoke in front of her elementary school on 12/2/2010. Why are we allowing smoke to break the Golden Heart of Fairbanks? The FDNM published this article on the UNHEALTHY category alert, “Inversion spurs air quality alert for Fairbanks” 12/2/2010. The borough asked residents to voluntarily cease wood and coal burning, yet this request was not widely disseminated on other media sources such as by radio.

The AQI is measured at the downtown BAM site and has been recorded as GOOD at times when neighborhood air quality was HAZARDOUS. Air quality may be much worse than the downtown site if one or more wood or coal acute smoke sources are nearby.

Newly revised School District regulation 960.1 allows healthy children to play outside at recess until particulate levels reach 176 micrograms/cubic meter. If this “guideline” is based on 24-hour particulate levels, it is much too high. If it is based on one-hour particulate levels, those measurements are not currently available to parents, nurses, principals, or even the Superintendent.

Listen to KUAC’s radio news story 12/14/2010 on the School District’s decision to revise the guidelines from 200 to 176 micrograms/cubic meter and the district’s challenge to ensure indoor air is clean.

The FDNM covered the same story, also neglecting to notice that if principals wait for 176 micrograms to take action based on the only numbers available, 24-hr averages, children may be playing outside until concentrations reach VERY UNHEALTHY.  Read the article, “Fairbanks school district tightens air quality restrictions for recess, practices” 12/15/2010. View Judging Particulate Levels in Your Area to better understand the levels, categories, and cautionary statements.
How can school nurses and principals know the air quality near schools to determine whether any child, especially health-compromised children, should play outside at recess or compete inside at athletic events? How can our children be protected when information needed to gauge exposure levels is not even available?

When our children are in danger, our community’s future is at risk.

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