- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Three Alaska groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday to force a decision on cleaning up chronic air pollution in Fairbanks, the state’s second-largest community.

Sites within the borough had the highest episodes of fine particulate pollution in the nation, according to data compiled by the EPA.

The EPA is four months overdue on deciding whether to accept a state plan to reduce fine particulate, the microscopic soot that’s especially harmful to children, the elderly and anyone with lung or heart problems, according to the lawsuit filed in Seattle.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough in winter regularly exceeds federal thresholds for the pollution. A major source is the burning of wood to warm homes and businesses. Cars and coal-fired heating systems or power plants also add particulate to the air, according to the groups.

The groups want a court order forcing a decision on a state cleanup plan that they believe is flawed, said Kenta Tsuda, an attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm representing the groups.

“There are a lot of inadequacies in this plan,” he said by phone from Juneau. Among them, he said, is wishful thinking that a majority of homes will transition from wood heat to natural gas in the near future.

“We know that assumption is fanciful,” he said.

An EPA rejection of the plan would force state environmental officials to make improvements, Tsuda said. The EPA ultimately can levy sanctions for noncompliance, such as withholding federal highway construction money, or impose its own compliance plan.

EPA spokeswoman Marianne Holsman said by email the agency is reviewing and evaluating the Fairbanks air quality plan submitted by the state.

“We continue to work closely with ADEC (Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation) and the Fairbanks North Star Borough to support their efforts to improve air quality in Fairbanks,” she said.

Particulate is a mix of solid particles and liquid droplets ranging from soot to microscopic pieces. The most dangerous particles, according to the EPA, are less than 10 micrometers, which can be inhaled deep in the lungs. A human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter.

Fine particulate measures 2.5 micrometers or less. It’s linked to heart attacks, decreased lung function and premature death in people with heart or lung diseases.

“It’s pretty incontrovertible that high levels of particulate are associated with many heath conditions,” Dr. Owen Hanley of Citizens for Clean Air said by phone from Fairbanks. “I’m a pulmonologist but it’s far beyond just a lung problem. It’s a problem that deals with cardiovascular disease, blood clots, pre-term births. It’s a toxin in the atmosphere.”

Air pollution and wood stoves are hot button issues in Fairbanks. Cleanup opponents say many residents cannot afford to heat homes without wood. They pushed through a ballot measure banning borough regulation of home heating devices, which has been reversed.

“There have been people - this is Alaska - who resent being told they can’t pollute their neighbor’s air,” Hanley said.

The lawsuit was filed by Citizens for Clean Air, Alaska Community Action on Toxics and the Sierra Club.

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