PM2.5 Non-Attainment Area: Fairbanks North Star Borough, AK

In interior Alaska, residents and officials of the Fairbanks North Star Borough (the FNSB) are dealing with a contentious topic – how to have access to affordable energy while still maintaining good public health.  High costs of living in the FNSB[1] have caused residents to use wood stoves as a cheap way to heat their homes as an alternative to home heating oil.[2]

The heightened use of wood stoves have produced harmful PM2.5 emissions and caused the Environmental Protection Agency to designate the FNSB as a PM2.5  Non-Attainment Area[3]. While this designation acknowledges the poor air quality in the FNSB, little attention has been paid to individuals impacted by the air pollution and previous histories of marginalization that may have led Alaska Native populations to bear an extensive amount of costs.  This discussion asserts that the networked assemblage of energy insecurity in the FNSB has helped to produce and enhance the effects of poor air quality which are being disproportionately felt among the indigenous peoples of Alaska.


What is a PM2.5 Non-Attainment Area?

  • A geographical area that has exceeded the 24 hour PM2.5 limit consistently over a three year period, as defined by the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS)[4].

  • When a PM2.5 designation is enacted, officials and scholars are given five years to submit and implement a plan to bring the area back into compliance with the NAAQS[5].

What are the causes of PM2.5 emissions in the FNSB?

  • Data shows emissions from wood stoves to be the primary source of PM2.5 pollution[6].

Why are PM2.5  levels high in the FNSB?

  • The cost of home heating oil has increased 66% in the last seven years[7] causing residents to use wood as a cheaper energy source[8].
  • While about one fifth of energy use comes from wood stoves, 58% – 86% of PM2.5 emissions were a product of wood smoke[9].
  • The FNSB has unique physical geographies making it vulnerable to extreme temperature inversions during the winter which trap emissions low to the ground[10].

Why are PM2.5 emissions harmful to humans?

Who is impacted by PM2.5 emissions in the FNSB?

  • All residents of the FNSB are affected by PM2.5 emissions, however, young children, the elderly and Alaska Native populations are particularly vulnerable[12].
  • Vulnerable groups have been taking measures to safe guard their health ranging from cancelling recess during school and moving away from the FNSB[13].

What are the histories of marginalization for Alaska Natives?

  • Before Alaska was purchased by the United States, Russians forced Alaska Natives to hunt for them without compensation, rather than leave them to participate in their subsistence lifestyles and other traditional practices[14].

  • As Westerners moved to Alaska, they tried to assimilate Alaska Natives into Western society using missionaries and trappers, thereby oppressing them by separating them from their traditional culture and families[15].
  • As a result of being separated from their culture, in present day, Alaska Natives endure high rates of depression, suicide, alcoholism and unemployment[16].

What is the social and economic background of Alaska Natives today?

  • High rates of substance abuse, which cause mental health problems and suicide, are prevalent among the Alaska Native population, especially Alaska Native youth.  There is a positive relationship with mental health problems and unemployment[17].
  • The average unemployment rate for Alaska Natives between 2005 and 2007 was over three times the national unemployment rate and 22% of Alaska Natives lived below the poverty line[18].

What is energy insecurity in the FNSB?

How is energy insecurity part of a networked assemblage?

  • Derived from the definition for networked assemblage of energy poverty[20] and energy insecurity[21], a networked assemblage of energy insecurity means that energy insecurity is caused not only by high energy prices, but is also influenced by outside forces such as limited access to energy infrastructure, cost of health care, high costs of living and past histories of marginalization.

What is environmental justice and how is it felt in the FNSB?

  • Environmental justice means that all people are entitled to a clean and healthy place to live and reside, regardless of socioeconomic or racial backgrounds[22].  Environmental injustices are present when previously marginalized groups of society are negatively impacted by environmental impacts, whether intentional or unintentional[23].
  • In the FNSB, Alaska Native populations are unfairly bearing the costs of PM2.5 emissions and high costs of home heating oil as a result of past histories of marginalization.


Multiple studies have determined that many residents of the FNSB are using wood stoves to heat their homes as an alternative to purchasing expensive home heating oil[24]. Using Mohai, Pellow and Robert’s (2009) economic explanation of environmental justice, the conclusion can be drawn that industry is not setting high prices of home heating oil to discriminate against marginalized populations, but rather any negative impacts on marginalized groups are unintended consequences of profit maximization[25]. Regardless of the cause of high home heating oil prices, Alaska Native populations are experiencing the burden of high costs of home heating oil in many different forms. The past histories of oppression of Alaska Natives have caused serious social issues and health problems including disproportionately high rates of substance abuse, depression and suicide[26]. These health problems have exacerbated the effects of unemployment and have put a strain on household incomes of Alaska Natives. The high cost of home heating oil has forced many residents of the FNSB to use wood stoves to decrease the burden on their household budget as an attempt to stay out of energy insecurity, including Alaska Natives, some of whom already have limited incomes. While use of wood stoves lessens the strain on the household budget, emissions of PM2.5 from wood smoke are dangerously high and polluting the air, creating more health problems for all populations and putting an even larger burden on the household budget. All of these strains merge together to form a networked assemblage of energy insecurity.  This cyclonic nature of positive feedbacks is intensifying social issues that already plague Alaska Natives, contributing further to energy insecurity and perpetuating environmental injustices.



[1] Fried, N. (2014). The cost of living in Alaska: A look at prices around the state over the past year. Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Viewed online October 23, 2014, <;.

[2] Caldwell, S. (2012). Fairbanks air quality a dirty shame locals call a community health crisis. Alaska Dispatch News. Viewed on September 30, 2014,<;. Murkowski, L. and Scott, T. (2014).  Plenty at stake: Indicators of American Energy Insecurity. United States Senator Lisa Murkowski and United States Senator Tim Scott. Viewed online October 23, 2014, <;. Di Genova, F. and Dulla, B. (2012). Fairbanks 2012 Home Heating Survey.  Sierra Research: Sacramento, CA.  Viewed on October 22, 2014, <;.

[3] Division of Air Quality (2013). Particulate Matter 2.5: Background. Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Viewed on October 23, 2014, <;.

[4] Ward, T.J. (2013). The Fairbanks, Alaska PM2.5 Source Apportionment Research Study.  The University of Montana, Center for Environmental Health Sciences: Missoula, MT. Viewed on September 28, 2014, <;. Environmental Protection Agency (2013).  Fine Particle (PM2.5) Designations: Basic Information. Environmental Protection Agency. Viewed on October 23, 2014, <;.

[5] Division of Air Quality (2013)

[6] Ward (2013)

[7] Murkowski and Scott (2014)

[8] Murkowski and Scott (2014); Caldwell (2012); Di Genova and Dulla (2012)

[9] Ward (2013)

[10] Division of Air Quality (2013)

[11] Office of Air and Radiation (2003). Particle Pollution and Your Health. Environmental Protection Agency. Viewed on December 1, 2014, <;.

[12] Office of Air and Radiation (2003); Caldwell (2012)

[13] Caldwell (2012)

[14] Sullivan, A. and Brems, C. (1997). The psychological reprecussions of the sociocultural oppression of Alaska Native peoples. Social & General Psychology Monographs. 123(4). Viewed on October 23, 2014, <;

[15] Sullivan and Brems (1997)

[16] Sullivan and Brems (1997); Wexler, L.M. (2006). Inupiat youth suicide and culture loss: Changing community conversations for prevention.  Social Science & Medicine.  63(11), 2938-2948. DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2006.07.022. Martin, S. and Hill, A. (2009). The Changing Economic Status of Alaska Natives, 1970-2007. Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska Anchorage.  Viewed on December 4, 2014, <;

[17] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2001).  Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity – A Supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services.  Retrieved from <;

[18] Martin and Hill (2009)

[19] Murkowski and Scott (2014)

[20] Harrison, C. and Popke J. (2011). “Because you got to have heat”: The networked assemblage of energy poverty in Eastern North Carolina. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 101(4), 949-961. DOI: 10.1080/00045608.2011.569659.

[21] Murkowski and Scott (2014)

[22] Mohai, P., Pellow, D. and Roberts, J.T. (2009). Environmental Justice. The Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 34, 404-430. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-environ-082508-094348.

[23] Mohai, Pellow and Roberts (2009)

[24] Murkowski and Scott (2014); Caldwell (2012); Di Genova and Dulla (2012)

[25] Mohai, Pellow and Roberts (2009)

[26] Wexler (2006); U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2001)


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