Today, a federal judge in Seattle entered a consent decree imposing a deadline for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take action to protect Borough residents and their families from breathing polluted air in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The Fairbanks North Star Borough has the worst spikes in fine particulate matter air pollution in the nation. The type of fine particulate matter pollution prevalent in Fairbanks—2.5 micrometers or less in diameter—has been found to cause a wide range of serious health problems, including asthma attacks, chronic respiratory disease, reduction in lung function, hospitalizations and emergency room visits for cardiopulmonary diseases, cancer, and even premature death. Fine particulate matter air pollution is of particular danger to children, reducing lung development, causing asthma, and impairing the immune system. The elderly and those with chronic disease also face heightened risks.
Of all the areas that fail to meet EPA air quality standards for this pollutant (referred to as PM-2.5 by the EPA), Fairbanks has the worst episodic pollution in the country—with levels spiking to almost double the next most-polluted area and nearly four-times the recommended limit for unhealthy air. Sources of PM-2.5 in Fairbanks include outdoor burning, wood- and coal-burning heating devices, automobiles and other vehicles, and industrial facilities like coal-fired power plants. The air pollution problems have worsened since 2009, when state and municipal officials were first advised that soot and smoke levels in Fairbanks were unhealthy and dangerous.
Today’s consent decree settles a lawsuit brought by Fairbanks community groups to force EPA to approve or disapprove the State of Alaska’s plan to address air pollution in Fairbanks. The state was late in submitting its plan, and then the EPA missed the deadline imposed by the Clean Air Act, which passed on February 18, 2016. The groups have now secured an order from the federal court compelling EPA to perform its duty by the end of August 2017. The agency’s decision on the plan is an important next step in addressing air pollution in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
The groups are represented by non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice’s Alaska office.
The following are statements from the groups:
Patrice Lee, Citizens for Clean Air: “We are hopeful that court-enforced deadlines will lead to a remedy to our serious air pollution and its associated health problems in our community. Our air quality has continued to deteriorate in many parts of our Borough. Residents remain at serious risk for health problems and premature death, including vulnerable populations who often don't have a voice: senior citizens on fixed incomes, special needs children, and adults, people with chronic illness, pregnant woman, children etc. Effective enforcement and clean-up are long overdue.”
Pamela Miller, Executive Director, Alaska Community Action on Toxics: “We are very pleased that the court will now enforce the deadlines and that no further delays will be allowed. We hope that this consent decree results soon in real action on the ground to address the public health crisis that the people of Fairbanks are suffering as a consequence of the polluted air. These problems are entirely preventable.”