Smokestack emissions are seen along the Fairbanks skyline on March 1. At left is the coal-fired heat and power plant on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. Alaska and nine other states have filed a notice of intent to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over its certification process for wood-fired stoves, which are factors in Fairbanks air pollution. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska and nine other states have notified the Environmental Protection Agency they intend to sue if new standards for certification of wood-burning stoves are not issued soon.
The EPA last issued standards for wood-burning stoves in 2015, and new standards are due at least every eight years, said the notice of intent to sue, which was issued on June 29.
The chief problem, the notice said, is that the EPA’s 2015 standards are flawed, inadequately administered and are allowing substandard devices to be certified, thus creating more pollution and deceiving consumers.
The notice of intent to sue gives the agency 60 days to produce revised wood-stove standards and a better process for testing and certifying the units.
Along with Alaska, the states filing the notice of intent to sue are New York, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, along with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.
For Alaska, the key issue is fine-particulate pollution in the Fairbanks area, which can be a serious problem and health hazard in winter.
The air-pollution problems stem from wintertime weather conditions known as inversions that are set up by surrounding mountains that trap cold air over the city and outlying areas. Particulate pollution from wood-burning stoves and other sources can get tapped in that stagnant air, resulting in violations of Clean Air Act standards. Despite several years of improvements, the Fairbanks North Star Borough is still considered to be falling short of federal standards for particulate pollution, labeled as a “nonattainment area.” The borough is the subject of an improvement plan from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation that requires EPA approval.
The latest state improvement plan, referred to as a SIP, remains under review by the EPA, with a final decision expected by the end of the year.
The EPA on Dec. 30 gave mixed reviews to the plan, proposing approval of some elements and rejection of others. The provisions concerning wood-burning stoves, for example, were seen as meriting approval, but other provisions, largely concerning commercial sources, were deemed insufficient. The agency said the state erred in failing to justify its decision to not require the best-available technology to be used in coal- and oil-burning power plants and in failing to justify its decision against requiring ultra-low-sulfur fuel for residential and commercial uses, among other deficiencies.
State officials argue that wood-burning stoves are responsible for most of the borough’s air pollution and that any new requirements concerning power plants, commercial operations and diesel fuel would be onerous.
“We must defend the Greater Fairbanks area from potentially expensive, restrictive federal controls on businesses that are not the source of the problem like coffee roasters, restaurants, and utilities,” Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said in a statement released last week by the Department of Law.
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jason Brune said wood smoke is responsible for 80% to 90% of the borough’s air-quality problems. “Unfortunately, EPA regulators in Seattle and Washington, D.C. are centrally focused on elements of the SIP that will have little to no environmental benefit, or at worst are overly punitive to utility ratepayers,” he said in the Department of Law statement.
But data from the EPA – which has praised Fairbanks’ improvements in wood-burning practices – indicates that those stoves are less of a problem than they were in the past and that validity of certification is now a relatively minor issue in the borough.
Since 2016 – when standards set in 2015 were effective — 158 EPA-certified wood-burning stoves have been installed in the borough, according to the EPA’s data. Since that year, much of the changeover involved conversions to other types of heating.
The Alaska Legislature this spring passed a resolution urging a solution for the state-EPA dispute. The measure, House Joint Resolution 11, called on the EPA to update its wood-stove standards so they are more useful and credible and called on the Department of Environmental Conservation to “develop an economically and legally defensible state implementation plan for the Fairbanks North Star Borough nonattainment area.”
Aside from Alaska’s concerns about the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the states’ notice cited concerns that low-income and minority neighborhoods are suffering more from wood smoke that is being emitted by improperly certified heaters. “Many of these devices will be installed in communities that are overburdened by environmental harms and other inequities, further exacerbating environmental justice issues,” the notice said.
The states’ notice cited documented deficiencies in the EPA’s wood-stove certification program.
Those citations include an EPA Inspector General’s report issued in February that found the 2015 standards were flawed and that inaccurate tests and oversight likely meant that consumers were getting substandard products marketed as “certified.”
The notice also cited a 2021 study by a coalition of eight Northeast states that evaluated over 250 EPA-certified wood heaters and found “a systemic failure of the entire certification process” and a lack of oversight creating a “dysfunctional” system. In many cases, manufacturers and testing laboratories distorted measurements, resulting in consumers getting subpar products, the report said.
Bill Dunbar, a spokesperson for EPA’s Region 10 office, said on Wednesday that the agency would not comment on pending litigation.
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