When the Borough Assembly meets this week, it will take up a proposal that the borough fund the local wood stove change-out program to the tune of $1 million for the second time this year. That’s a sizable allocation, but the members of the assembly would be wise to approve it. The change-out program is not only extremely popular with residents looking to upgrade older, dirtier stoves, it’s the most effective voluntary measure the borough has to combat its winter air pollution problem.
The ordinance, sponsored by assembly member John Davies, would replenish the almost-empty fund that keeps the program going. The reason for the fund’s swift depletion — the borough last kicked in $1 million in February to keep the program going, only eight months ago — is that as voluntary measures go, the program has been the borough’s greatest success. It’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of other campaigns, such as the “Split, stack, store” education effort to encourage residents to lay in a supply of wood early so that it has time to dry. Replacing stoves themselves, like replacing household boilers, is expensive but can make a huge, measurable positive impact. Many of the stoves being replaced are simple, dirty-burning models that not only create more pollution but don’t capture nearly as much heat as newer, cleaner-burning stoves with which they’re replaced.
The change-out program was initially sponsored by the state when it started in 2010, and the Legislature allocated about $5 million to administer it until funds ran out late last year. The state’s will to help monetarily with air cleanup efforts fell victim to the budget crisis in the past legislative session, and the borough was left to pick up the check this year.
While there’s room for debate about what level of responsibility and funding should be divided between the borough and state, the difficult budget math at the state level makes it a near certainty that the state won’t be willing to provide more change-out funds in the foreseeable future.
In addition to the established air quality and heating benefits of the program, there’s a reason why maintaining funding for the program makes good political sense for the borough. Put simply, the public is often more receptive to efforts like the air-quality push the borough is pursuing when there’s not just the metaphorical stick of regulations for which violators will be punished, but also a carrot to help people achieve the ends desired. No one likes an unfunded mandate, and the wood stove change-out program is one of the best ways the borough can avoid pushing off the financial burden of air clean-up efforts (which has already been pushed from the federal government to the state, and now the state to local government) to individual residents, among whom the burden may fall unequally and be hard to bear for many who need help the most.
The wood stove change-out program is the best mechanism the borough has to convince members of the public who might be skeptical of new local air regulations that it’s willing to meet them halfway, and that local government isn’t trying — as some have alleged — to shut down all wood burning in the area. The assembly would be wise to keep the program going.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,