FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A federal panel of scientists is studying Fairbanks' air quality as borough officials urge residents to plug in their cars to keep emission levels down.
Fairbanks North Star Borough officials also hope that the panel will bolster its claim that the health risks related to air quality are not that great.
The scientists, selected by the National Academy of Sciences, will take public comments at a Dec. 12 hearing in Fairbanks.
The car-plug idea is the central proposal in the borough's recently completed plan to reduce carbon monoxide emissions.
Under federal law, the borough may not exceed carbon monoxide standards more than once for two consecutive years. Exceeding the standard two times or more is considered a violation.
Fairbanks has not had a violation this year or last. However, the area must extend that streak to Dec. 31. If it doesn't, federal sanctions on the region could begin. Those could include mandatory traffic reductions by employers.
The federal standard is 9.5 molecules of carbon monoxide for every million molecules of air. Monday afternoon, borough air quality specialist Paul Rossow said the air at the borough's sampling stations registered an eight-hour average of about 3 parts of carbon monoxide per million of air. As evening traffic increased, Rossow expected that to rise to 5 parts per million.
Rossow said he couldn't predict what would happen more than a day in advance.
The risk of violating the standard is highest between zero and 20 degrees, so current low temperatures are putting the borough at risk, said Max Lyon, the borough's transportation director and overseer of the air quality program.
A study completed earlier this year by Summit Research, a California firm, concluded that emissions could be reduced by 70 percent if everyone plugged in their vehicles before starting them, Lyon said.
Whether even that would be enough to meet the standard is open to debate, said Nadine Hargesheimer, chief of staff to borough Mayor Rhonda Boyles.
Hargesheimer said that's why the borough is hoping to get a little backing from the National Academy panel, requested by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in last year's federal budget.
''What they are doing is looking at whether in fact we are held hostage'' by the strong temperature inversions that trap pollutants near ground level a few times each winter, Hargesheimer said.
A second phase of the NAS review will look at the health issues, she said. While carbon monoxide can be toxic and can cause breathing difficulties for people with asthma, Hargesheimer said there is no evidence of a problem at the concentrations seen in Fairbanks.
In a recent plan submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency, the borough administration promised to promote electrical plug-ins. To back up that plan, the borough has taken action, including requiring employers with more than 250 employees to provide plug-ins and to turn on the power at 20 degrees or lower, Lyon said.
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