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ND air quality receives 'A' grade

Cars and trucks drive down a gravel road in north Dickinson's industrial area near Highway 22. Dunn County officials have budged $2 million for dust control this year -- a budget item that didn't exist before the oil boom brought traffic to country roads.

The Peace Garden State continues to receive high marks for air quality, despite dust issues plaguing the western part of the state.

"North Dakota is one of a handful of states that meet all clean air standards," Jim Semerad, North Dakota Department of Health's Division of Air Quality Permitting and Compliance manager. "Newer air quality regulations that are in place and enforced and our low population all play into it."

Eight North Dakota counties were selected for the American Lung Association's State of the Air Annual Report for 2013, including Billings, Dunn and McKenzie counties, chosen because of their populations and proximity to national lands, all three counties earned "A" grades.

Mercer and Oliver counties, which house five of the state's seven power plants and the only lignite-to-natural gas synfuels plant, also received "A's."

"North Dakotans breathe some of the cleanest air in the United States, in part because of emissions control technologies at the state's seven coal-based power plants," said Steve Van Dyke, who is the vice president-communications for the Lignite Energy Council.

The 14th annual State of the Air study, conducted by the American Lung Association, looked at the Environmental Protection Agency's most recent air pollution data for smog and dust -- the two most widespread types of air pollution.

"Dust is a type of particle pollution that the state monitors and reports to the EPA, but our report doesn't breakdown specific types of particle pollution," said Robert Moffitt, communications director for the Outdoor Air Division at the American Lung Association's St. Paul, Minn., office that covers outdoor issues for North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. "It should be noted that the 2013 State of the Air Report shows that only half of the state's eight air monitors provided enough data for the American Lung Association to issue a grade on particle pollution."

Those monitors were located in Billings, Burleigh, Cass and Mercer counties.

Burke, Dunn, McKenzie and Oliver counties now have particle pollution monitors, but Moffitt said data has been too insufficient to date to receive a grade for short-term and annual levels.

Cities and towns were ranked on ozone, year-round particle pollution and short-term particle pollution levels to make its assessment and improvements were seen in year-round particle pollution.

But it was determined that short-term dust issues and number of days of high ozone levels increased in the more polluted areas involved in the study.

According to the American Lung Association, the EPA also ranks North Dakota as one of seven states that meet all of the nation's strict federal ambient air quality standards.

But more than 131 million people -- slightly less than half the national population -- reside in counties that have unhealthy ozone or dust pollution levels, according to the study.

Moffitt said an "A" grade for a county does not mean that people living there will have no air pollution-related health effects, though.

"As we learn more about the health effects of air pollution, we need our national air quality standards to be set where they truly protect public health," he said. "Just as in school, good grades on one report card are no reason to stop working to do even better. As we learn more about the health effects of air pollution, federal air quality standards are getting tougher. North Dakota should continue to seek cleaner sources of electrical power and transportation fuels to ensure that their scores remain high, and the air remains clear and healthy for everyone."