EPA Considers Telling Alaskans to Stop Using Wood-Burning Stoves for Heat

Published January 31, 2017

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), tasked with enforcing the federal Clean Air Act, may declare Fairbanks and North Pole, Alaska, towns with a combined population of about 100,000, in “serious” noncompliance with the law early in 2017.

Wood-burning stoves emit small-particle matter (PM 2.5), which can settle in low-lying areas and can contribute to respiratory problems, according to EPA. EPA monitors show from 2013 through 2015, North Pole, Alaska, a town south of Fairbanks, had the highest average level for PM 2.5 in the nation. Absent quick action to reduce these emissions, Tim Hamlin, the director of the office of air and waste at EPA’s Region 10, says the agency could issue a noncompliance designation in early 2017, according to a report by The New York Times. A non-compliance designation could result in a loss of federal transportation funding for the state.

Hamlin notes the 1970 Clean Air Act sets a nationwide standard for air quality, which EPA was charged with enforcing.

 “We don’t want to be telling people what to do, but the standard is what it is, and we want to work with you to be able to get there,” Hamlin told the Times.

Replacement Difficulties

This threat has Alaskan state and local authorities looking for ways to reduce emissions from wood-burning stoves, but they say there are no ready replacements for those stoves in Alaska’s interior, where the electric power grid does not extend.

Jon Dehn, an affiliate faculty member in the University of Alaska’s Geology Department, says replacing wood-burning stoves is difficult because many homes and businesses in Alaska are constructed around the wood stove.

“It’s just not a component you could easily take out and replace,” Dehn said.

In addition, some stoves can burn any readily available fuel fed into them, Dehn says. This has been a source of much of the pollution, especially when people burn trash, such as old tires.

“People get upset if you tell them they have to replace them or they can only burn a certain type of fuel,” said Dehn.

Temperature Inversion Skewing Data

Dehn says another problem is when it gets really cold, cold air gets trapped in low areas because of a lack of normal conductive flow. Operating wood-burning stoves or cars exacerbates the problem, creating an icy fog in low-lying areas.

“[The inversion] is being measured for air quality,” Dehn said.

Dehn says EPA is pointing to a perceived problem without providing a realistic solution.

“In the end, what are you really going to do when it is 25 degrees below zero and the only heat a person has is a wood stove and they’re doing the best they can burning the fuel they have?” said Dehn. “What are you going to do? Tell them to freeze to death?”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.