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Wood-burning blamed for poor air in Fairbanks

By Mary Pemberton, Associated Press Writer

ANCHORAGE — On winter days when the air is still and Fairbanks area residents fire up their wood stoves and outdoor boilers, Alaska's second-largest city becomes entombed in a shroud of pollution.

The problem is due in part to wood stoves and outdoor boilers that belch out small particles, forcing residents to breathe some of the unhealthiest air in the nation. The borough's air problem can become acute during a temperature inversion, when cold air near the ground is trapped by warmer air on top.

"It traps everything near the ground," said Glenn Miller, transportation director for the Fairbanks North Star Borough who oversees air quality.

The state's lack of affordable heat has forced residents to pay $5,000 to $10,000 to heat their homes, so many turned to the old standby — wood heat.

"They are doing it because they can't afford anything else," Miller said.

The borough assembly on Thursday will vote on whether residents can come up with a plan to get the Fairbanks area off the Environmental Protection Agency's list of communities violating fine particle pollution standards, or leave it to the state. Fairbanks shares the list with much larger cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York.

The state has less than three years to submit an implementation plan to the EPA or risk losing federal money.

Two summers ago, William Tilton's neighbors in North Pole installed an outdoor boiler. Tilton's flock of 40 pigeons began dying that winter.

The problem is "what smells like fumes from coal-burning moves through my property on a regular basis, especially when it gets cold," said Tilton, 65.

He blames the outdoor boiler and the large pile of coal stored under a tarp, and wishes he could go back to using oil for heat.

The borough, which has about 98,000 residents, has been collecting data on particulates from five sites in a federally-designated non-attainment area for pollution. About 85,000 people live in the non-attainment area. It shows that old wood stoves and outdoor boilers are the biggest offenders.

But the borough is looking at other sources, including the burning of used motor oil for heat, oil furnaces; diesel-powered trucks, planes and locomotives; and coal-fired power plants.

Exposure to particulate pollution increases the risks of chronic bronchitis and decreased lung function. It also can shorten lives for people with heart or lung disease.

In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency cut the acceptable level of particulates nearly in half, from 65 micrograms per cubic meter to 35 micrograms. From late December to early January, Fairbanks exceeded the limit for particulates on 11 consecutive days.

The problem appears to be getting worse, Miller said.

About 17% of the area's 35,000 households use some amount of wood to heat their homes, said John Davies with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks. He estimates that about 12,000 wood stoves and about 500 outdoor boilers are in use.

Miller said that when the price of home-heating fuel increased, wood-fired boilers were shipped up from the Lower 48 where some states banned them. The older-style boilers come with a water jacket around the fire chamber that prevents the wood from burning completely, increasing pollution output.

"Half the wood you put in there goes up the stack," Davies said.

Some people who burn wood also underestimate the amount needed to heat their homes for the winter and run out of wood they stacked in the summer. They then burn wet, green wood, which emits far more pollution and heats less efficiently. Many also burn coal in the boilers, or pallets and construction debris, or even garbage.

"You have a lot of folks out there who have never burned wood before. They don't know what they are doing," Miller said.

North Pole resident Jerry Koerner said outdoor boilers are forcing him to adopt an indoor lifestyle.

"It is starting to affect our health," said Koerner, 54, who blames his raspy voice on breathing the pungent fumes from the boilers near his home. He and his wife used to enjoy taking a two-mile walk near their home. Last week, he found himself breathing through his jacket. His wife used her scarf.

"We have lots and lots of complaints from individuals who live next to these people who have outdoor wood boilers," Miller said. "They are literally smoking them out of their houses."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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