FARGO — The smoke and haze from wildfires outside of North Dakota have dragged down the state's grades for air quality in recent years.
The American Lung Association gave five of the 10 counties that track air quality in the state an F because of increased levels of particle pollution, according to the group's 2019 State of the Air report released this month. Those counties were Burke, Burleigh, Dunn, Mercer and Williams.
Cass County earned a C, the highest grade obtained by a North Dakota county, the report said. Billings, McKenzie and Oliver received Ds, and there was not enough data to grade Ward County.
It’s the third consecutive year North Dakota has seen lower grades, said Robert Moffitt, a spokesman for the Lung Association. More wildfires, which are happening more frequently across the U.S. and Canada, have affected the state’s air quality grades, he said.
“I think it’s not too far of a stretch to say this is global climate change starting to have an impact on the scores,” he said.
The Lung Association uses data collected by the North Dakota Department of Health from air monitoring stations. The organization then grades the stations based on how many days the concentration of pollutants exceed certain levels.
North Dakota typically has earned high marks in the 20 years the Lung Association has tracked air quality this way, Moffitt said. That’s likely because North Dakota isn’t as densely populated as other areas, and has wide-open spaces and high winds that blow pollutants out of the state, said Daryl Ritchison, director of the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network.
“Truth be told, the thing that we dislike here a lot helps North Dakota to have some of the cleanest air in the country,” he said of the wind.
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The smoke from outside sources skews data in North Dakota, said Dave Glatt, environmental health section chief for the state Health Department.
“The reason I say that is because all of our other traditional sources, such as the power plants and other emission sources, continue to be in compliance like they always have,” Glatt said. “The only factor that's really changed is the occurrence of forest fires and the impact on the state.”
Moffitt said North Dakota should finalize its plans to reduce air pollution with the $8 million it received from a Volkswagen settlement negotiated by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016. The vehicle company was cited for federal violations that claimed it cheated during carbon emissions testing.
Glatt said residents should take precautions when situations, including wildfires, threaten air quality.
“For the estimated 61,000 North Dakotans who have asthma, short-term particle pollution can cause difficulty breathing, and may trigger an asthma attack,” Moffitt said. “Long-term exposure also is hazardous to people with pre-existing lung conditions, but also to the elderly and the very young.”
Whether the pattern of low grades continues depends on what happens upwind.
“We just naturally go through these wet and dry cycles, and right now we are in a dry cycle,” Glatt said, adding that a wet cycle would likely result in fewer wildfires.
The Lung Association's report also had bright spots. North Dakota received A and B grades for ozone pollution. And Bismarck ranked ninth on a list of the 25 cleanest U.S. cities year-round for particle pollution, the only North Dakota city to do so.