Elevated ozone levels could cost Wichita businesses and consumers more than $100 million over the next 10 years, city officials said Friday.
But state environmental officials said it will be at least August before the extent of the city’s air pollution problems with the federal Environmental Protection Agency are known.
Wichita’s ozone readings were over federal limits Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, according to state officials, before dipping slightly below on Thursday. EPA guidelines call for a maximum 75 parts of ozone per billion parts of air on average, with Wichita numbers rising into the 80s this week.
“There’s no question that it’s high,” said Rick Brunetti, director of KDHE’s Bureau of Air in Topeka. Essentially, Wichita has about 25 parts of ozone per billion parts of air more than normal, Brunetti said.
As a result, city and county fire departments issued open burn bans Friday.
Why the ozone numbers are up is less clear, Brunetti said, but he’s discounting the effect of wildfires in Colorado. Air quality readings in western Kansas this week have been well within federal limits, he said.
“The main factor is the heat,” he said. “And the low wind speed. They’re just killing us.”
Brunetti said that air quality numbers in Cedar Point, in western Kansans, were well below EPA regulations this week.
Kay Johnson, the city’s environmental initiatives manager, said ozone readings are up around the Midwest and Southwest in the grips of this heat wave.
She blamed controlled agricultural burning in the area for part of the pollution problem earlier this week.
“The problem is in the summer when you do things like drive your car or use a coal plant to take care of the air conditioning everyone’s turning on, you’re putting smoke and chemicals into the air,” she said. “The sun and heat then form ozone and then with the sun, the heat and the humidity it tends to compress. It’s not blowing away. It stays in the community.”
City and state officials don’t anticipate immediate EPA problems. The ozone readings have to go through quality assurance, and then any potential violations go through the KDHE and EPA for analysis.
If a violation is determined, city and KDHE officials would have to compile a set of business and individual environmental regulations for EPA approval that would be expensive. Johnson estimated such regulations would drain at least $10 million annually out of the Wichita economy for 10 years. One such regulation — car emissions inspections — will cost millions to design and implement, she said.
Brunetti said that even if this week’s numbers are a violation, it will be at least August before such a determination is made.
“And maybe never,” he said. “We don’t know because it’s the EPA’s call.”
Johnson said the city hopes the EPA will take into consideration the city’s work in 2011 with the Flint Hills smoke management plan, which would lower the city’s overall ozone average and perhaps buffer this week’s air quality problems.
Ozone and your health
People with chronic respiratory problems, children and the elderly should use caution while the ozone levels are elevated, city and Sedgwick County officials said.
And so far, it appears that caution is being used, probably due to the heat.
Officials with the city’s two major hospital systems say the number of patients seeking emergency care for respiratory issues this week was about normal.
Wesley Medical Center spokeswoman Susan Burchill said the hospital has seen only one patient in recent days with respiratory problems.
“We’ve seen a number of them with the extreme heat, but nothing out of the ordinary,” said Roz Hutchinson, a Via Christi spokeswoman.
The Sedgwick County Fire Department and the Wichita Fire Department issued open burn bans Friday.
The city has banned all current burn permits, but the ban does not affect the sale or discharge of fireworks over the July 4 holiday. Agricultural burning will be allowed in the county, but open burns like brush, tree trimmings and bonfires will not be allowed, county officials said.