Severe Human Health Risks Continue in Fairbanks as EPA Fails to Address Some of Nation’s Worst Air Pollution

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Threats to human health continue unabated in the Fairbanks North Star area, which has some of the worst fine particulate air pollution in the nation, with pollution levels more than twice the limit for healthy air. Friday, Citizens for Clean Air, Alaska Community Action on Toxics and the Sierra Club filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for missing its fourth deadline in four years to address Fairbanks’ air pollution problem .

“The EPA failed in its duty to protect the people of Fairbanks from fine particulate matter pollution,” said Jeremy Lieb, Senior Attorney, Earthjustice: “Air pollution problems have not improved since 2009, when state and municipal officials were first notified that levels of soot and smoke in Fairbanks were unhealthy and dangerous.”

This will be the fifth time the groups have been forced to sue the EPA in the past eight years to spur the necessary action to begin cleaning up the air in Fairbanks.

“The EPA has failed the residents of the Fairbanks North Star neighborhood, and the dangerously polluted air we breathe continues to put our families and community at risk,” said Patrice Lee of Citizens for Clean Air. “The Clean Air Act is the law, and we are holding the EPA accountable for the continued threats to the health of our children, the elderly, the disabled, pregnant women and anyone with a pre-existing condition, known or unknown. Fairbanks deserves more.”

“Our health is precious and everyone deserves clean air,” he said Pamela Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics. “The air pollution that the people of Fairbanks are exposed to on a daily basis puts us at serious risk. EPA is delaying action too long and we are paying the price with our health.”

BACKGROUND:
The type of fine particulate pollution prevalent in Fairbanks — 2.5 micrometers or smaller in diameter — has been found to cause a wide range of serious health problems, including asthma attacks, chronic respiratory disease, reduced lung function, hospitalizations and visits to the the emergency room for cardiopulmonary disease, cancer and even premature death. Air pollution with fine dust particles is particularly dangerous for children, as it reduces lung development, causes asthma and damages the immune system. The elderly and those with chronic illnesses also face an increased risk. Sources of fine particulate matter in Fairbanks include outdoor burning, wood and coal heaters, automobiles and other vehicles, and industrial facilities such as coal-fired power plants. The federal government recognizes the dangers that exposure to PM-2.5 poses to the people of Fairbanks.

In 1997, the EPA established a 24-hour National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for PM2.5 and made these standards more stringent in 2006. On November 13, 2009, the EPA identified Fairbanks as a “nonattainment area” for the 2006 revised standard in a rule effective December 14, 2009.

Since then, Citizens for Clean Air, Alaska Community Action on Toxics and the Sierra Club have filed multiple lawsuits — in 2014, 2016 and again in 2018 — to force the EPA to address Fairbanks’ air pollution problems.

In May 2017, after more than seven years of failing to meet federal air quality standards in the area, the EPA finalized a rule reclassifying Fairbanks from “Moderate” to “Severe” nonattainment and set the area’s attainment date as December 31, 2019 .In light of this reassignment, Alaska was required to submit a new proposed “Serious” SIP area to EPA by December 31, 2017, and EPA was required to make a completeness determination with respect to Alaska’s SIP submission. Following litigation initiated by Citizens for Clean Air, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, and the Sierra Club to enforce these mandated actions, Alaska submitted a proposed SIP to EPA on December 13, 2019, and EPA issued a finding of completeness on January 9, 2020 .

In its proposed “Serious” area SIP, Alaska requested an extension of the environmental attainment date from December 31, 2019 to December 31, 2024—the maximum allowable deadline. On September 2, 2020, the EPA found that Alaska had failed to demonstrate achievement in Fairbanks by the 2019 deadline and denied the state’s request for an extension. EPA’s refusal to extend the attainment date prompted the requirement that Alaska submit a revised SIP, meeting even more stringent requirements, by December 31, 2020.

Alaska submitted a revised SIP proposal to EPA on December 15, 2020. After EPA failed to determine completeness by June 15, 2021, the plan was deemed complete “by operation of law.” EPA was then required to issue approval or disapproval of the plan as a whole by June 15, 2022. EPA has not yet met this non-discretionary obligation.

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