Guest essay by Eric Worrall
As Alaskan winter temperatures drop below -30F, the EPA is considering fining and prosecuting entire towns for breaching clean air laws, because of smoke from residential fireplaces.
Alaskans’ Cost of Staying Warm: A Thick Coat of Dirty Air
“That guy has got an old stove, right there,” Dr. Jeanne Olson, a veterinarian and air quality volunteer, said on a recent afternoon, pointing from the cab of her four-wheel-drive Toyota toward a spiraling column of thick gray smoke from a homeowner’s chimney. The thermometer inside Dr. Olson’s cab said it was 30 below zero outside, which meant that lots of people in the vicinity were probably putting another log on the fire, or thinking about it, even as she spoke.
But here in one of the coldest parts of the coldest state, there is an only-in-Alaska pollution story: At about minus 20 Fahrenheit — a fairly regular occurrence here in winter — smoke that goes up comes right back down, to linger at ground level and, therefore, lung level. The average from 2013 to 2015 for dangerous small-particle pollution, called PM 2.5, which can be deeply inhaled into the lungs, was by far the highest in the nation in North Pole, just southeast of Fairbanks, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“It’s all one thing — when you most need the heat is when you’re most apt to create a serious air pollution problem for yourself and the people in your community,” said Tim Hamlin, the director of the office of air and waste at the E.P.A.’s Region 10, which includes Alaska.
And forces are now converging to heighten the tension in this seemingly unlikely pollution story. Civil fines by Fairbanks North Star Borough — which includes the cities of Fairbanks and North Pole, with a total population of about 100,000 — could be assessed in coming days against residential polluters. The E.P.A. could declare the entire area to be in “serious” noncompliance of the Clean Air Act early next year, with potentially huge economic implications, including a cutoff of federal transportation funds.
Let me see if I have got this right – if you try to escape President Obama’s skyrocketing energy prices by burning wood stay warm, on the very coldest winter nights you risk being fined by mobile EPA air quality inspectors.