HEIDI ZEMACH for SCN
Local residents spoke out at the last City Council meeting and urged Seward to do something about the smell and health hazards emitted by coal-burning stoves.
“It gets especially bad on a winter’s day when you get that temperature inversion that pushes everything down.” said Ben Pazdernik, of Birch Street, attending Monday’s Sept 9th 2013 council meeting with his wife Rebecca. He’s a boat captain, and both are small business people who sell nutritious health products.
Residents know all of the obvious health implications that go along with breathing coal, he said. It’s pretty blatant, and everyone noticed it last winter. Now that winter’s coming, heating fuel costs are expensive, and more and more people are going to start burning coal. “It’s is a problem that needs to be nipped in the bud,” Pazdernik said.
The issue of coal stove air pollution came up a few times last winter after council members received complaints privately about the smell, and a few noticed it themselves. But it had quietly been dropped, replaced with other, more pressing issues.
“An advantage to living in city limits is there are ordinances that can be made that can make a big difference for the health of this community,” Pazdernik said. He’s educating himself on how other cities in Alaska and on the Kenai Peninsula are handling the issue, he added, but would like the council to address this soon, before more people start turning to coal.
“I’m new to the community, so I will claim ignorance on how things have worked and how they ought to work,” said Jim Doepken, the pastor at the Methodist Church. His wife and four children moved to Seward from Girdwood this past summer. They live on 1st Avenue.
Doepken first began to notice it during the summer when the children would close the windows, and his mother who was visiting inquired what the bad smell was, he said. She had asthma, and her condition started to act up while she was here.
He rhetorically asked the council what they would say if he had come into the council chambers and asked if he could smoke there. “You would say, ‘No, you can’t,’” he said. When he’d follow up with, Why not? They’d probably say, “Because it’s bad for your health of course!”
“I was told it was a non-issue in Seward,” he continued, “but all issues can be addressed if enough people are concerned.” Doepkin concluded: I love my mother and I would love for her to come and visit us often.”
“It really does smell horrible,” agreed Vanta Shafer, a councilwoman who has spoken repeatedly in the past about the smell of certain coal burning stoves in the city. But coal costs $80 a ton, and the council also “gets yelled at” over the cost of energy, she said.
When the issue arose at council meetings last winter, City Attorney Cheryl Brooking reminded folks that the city does not control air quality permits or enforce them. Air quality protection is up to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, she said.
DEC has certain air quality standards determined by the levels of heavy particulates in the air, said Assistant Manager Ron Long. Perhaps these standards could be incorporated as part of city enforcement, he said.
“Hey, our air quality’s good. We have the tests to prove that,” Shafer responded, referring to the recent ambient air monitoring study with DEC. That study found that none of the samples taken of ambient air around Seward between Jan 2011-May 2012 exceeded national air quality standards for PM10s, or even came close to the current federal threshold level that would have triggered the agency’s concern.
The results may have depended on where and when samples were taken, Long said, adding that there might be some areas in town with higher “point source” concentrations than others.
Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, along with the Global Community Monitor, based in El Cerrito, California, conducted their own independent air quality tests at some of these key point source locations, concentrating air sampling around the small boat harbor and coal facility on windy days. Unlike DEC’s ambient air quality tests, all samples collected in the filters were sent to independent laboratories for analysis. A peer-reviewed report based on the results of that study will be released soon.
Council conversation then turned to the fact that some coal burning stoves supposedly don’t emit as offensive odors (or particles) as others do. City Building Inspector Stefan Nilsson said there was nothing in the local builder’s code that lists the type of heaters residents can own that pertains to coal stoves or their level of efficiency. Fans can be added to coal stoves that will burn the coal more completely at hotter temperatures, however, thus lowering the amount of troublesome emissions, Nilsson said.
City Code does have an ordinance pertaining to the issue:
Ordinance 9.20.030. – “Escape of soot, cinders, noxious acids, fumes and gas” makes it unlawful for any person to permit or cause the escape of such quantities of soot, cinders, noxious acids, fumes and gases in such place, or manner as to be detrimental to any person or the public.” It states it also is unlawful to “endanger the health, comfort and safety of any such person or of the public; cause or have a tendency to cause injury or damage to property or business. The escape of such matter is declared to be a public nuisance and may be summarily abated by the abatement official.”
Moreover it states; “Cinders,” “dust,” “fly ash,” “noxious acids,” “fumes” and “gases,” shall be considered to be all matter other than dense smoke, including smoke, cinders, dust and soot formed as the result of the combustion of fuel which are carried in the gas streams so as to reach the eternal air and which have not been completely consumed by the combustion process.”
The city ordinance is vague and difficult to enforce, however, said Seward Police Lt. Lois Tiner, in an interview with SCN. “It’s a personal opinion on what’s noxious and what’s not. I may burn coal in my house and it may not bother me, so there’s nothing that we can enforce on it.” Nor do the police own any gadgets that can measure the amount of particles that someone’s stove is emitting, he said.
The other issue is a philosophical one: whether people want government interference with their lives or private property rights. Vice Jean Bardarson received pleas from some members of the public last year not to let the council “regulate coal out of the community,” because they said they couldn’t afford to heat their homes with fuel oil. Other callers told her they couldn’t go outdoors at times because of the smell. With a little research she located some efficient coal-burning stoves that cost about $2,500 and could heat about 1,500 square foot house.
Another issue, not discussed, is the disposal of coal-ash, which contains heavy metals and is very mobile. According to local reports residential coal ash is routinely dumped in various areas around town, including wetlands and the intertidal zone at the beach downtown. The EPA is considering declaring all coal-combustion waste as hazardous and requiring its disposal in lined landfills.