A federal district judge issued an order this week that will help the people of Fairbanks, Alaska, to breathe easier. For decades, the Fairbanks North Star Borough has been out of compliance with federal air quality standards, established to protect public health. The Borough is known for having the worst spikes in fine particulate matter in the nation — reaching levels more than 3.5 times as high as the recommended limit for this noxious form of pollution. Studies have linked fine particulate matter with health concerns such as decreased lung function, asthma, heart problems and a higher risk of premature death for people suffering from heart and lung disease.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation have repeatedly failed to address the problem, and have only complied with obligations imposed by the Clean Air Act in response to a series of lawsuits.
Most recently, in 2017 EPA designated the Borough as a “serious non-attainment area,” triggering an obligation for the state to impose stricter pollution control requirements. The state missed the deadline for coming up with an action plan to address the pollution; and EPA, too, failed to take action. Earthjustice, on behalf of Citizens for Clean Air, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, and the Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit to enforce this requirement.
Yesterday, a U.S. District Court Judge in Washington issued an order adopting two consent decrees structured to ensure that a plan begins to moves forward. The consent decrees (for Alaska, and the EPA) obligate the state of Alaska to submit an air plan to the EPA by December 15, 2019, and requires EPA to reject it as incomplete or start reviewing it by January 15 of 2020.
“We are hopeful that court-enforced deadlines will accelerate the focus on a remedy to our serious air pollution, and its associated bad health problems,” said Patrice Lee, of Citizens for Clean Air. “The longer it takes to clean up our air, the more citizens will continue to be the collateral damage. More than $10 million has been spent on stove change-outs to help some residents burn cleaner. Not one penny has been spent to support the high cost of medical care for people who are adversely affected by smoke and other toxic pollution. 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, adults with chronic illness, pregnant women, and children.”
“We are pleased that EPA and the State have agreed to take this long-overdue action,” said Jeremy Lieb, Associate Attorney at Earthjustice. “The work to clean up the air in Fairbanks continues, but this is a step forward.”