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Wichita could breathe easier under new EPA air quality ruling

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, at 8:22 p.m.

A recent ruling by federal environmental regulators could create some breathing room for Wichita when it comes to meeting air quality guidelines and avoiding costly preventative measures.

The Environmental Protection Agency has approved a Kansas agency’s request to exclude four days from April 2011 when calculating air quality data over a rolling, three-year average.

“It’s good news that we got a positive response,” Tom Gross, Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s section chief for air monitoring and planning, said Thursday.

But more has to happen before state and Wichita officials will know how much the decision will mean for the city, which has been teetering on the edge of noncompliance with federal air quality standards for years.

For starters, the EPA could decide to make the air quality standards stricter at some point.

That decision is currently expected in late 2013. But it may not come until 2014, which would take 2011 numbers out of the equation of the rolling, three-year average, Gross said.

Still, it’s good that Wichita was able to get the April 2011 dates off its record, he said.

In a rare move, the EPA agreed with state officials that prescribed burnings in the Flint Hills and drifting smoke from wildfires in Texas and Mexico contributed to ozone levels that exceeded the federal standards in Kansas. Wichita, Kansas City and Topeka were affected on April 6, 12 and 13 in 2011. Wichita was also affected on April 29, according to a letter from the EPA to the KDHE dated Dec. 28.

The EPA’s current standard calls for a maximum 75 parts of ozone per billion parts of air on average. That average is taken from the fourth-highest average over a rolling, three-year period.

Before the EPA’s ruling, Wichita’s applicable average for 2011 was 78. It was dropped to 77 after excluding the April days affected by the wildfires, Gross said.

Just dropping it by a point could help Wichita, if 2011 is still factored into the EPA’s calculations for designating an area out of compliance.

“As the theory goes, the less you exceed the standard the less restriction will be put on that area,” said Randy Owen, the air quality supervisor for the city of Wichita.

An area deemed noncompliant is subject to meeting additional environmental requirements by the EPA, such as car emissions inspections. In the past city officials have estimated those regulations would cost the Wichita economy $10 million annually for 10 years.

The Kansas City area has had to follow stricter regulations for decades because of noncompliance.

By federal law, the EPA is required to review its air quality standard every five years. Since it was last done in 2008, that means 2013 is supposed to be the year.

“They’ll sometimes miss a deadline,” Gross said.

Although there is concern that the standard will be set at less than 75, just a review of the standards initiates another procedure: The EPA makes a new determination about which communities were out of compliance over the previous three years.

Kansas and Wichita want to get as far away from 2011 and 2012 as possible before the EPA does that because brutal heat drove up ozone levels in both those years. In July 2012, Wichita had a string of 100-degree days, including back-to-back 111 temperatures late in the month.

If the decision on the standard doesn’t come until 2014, what happened in 2011 won’t matter. Stretch it to 2015 – which officials say isn’t out of the question because state and federal regulators have months of implementation discussions – and even 2012 wouldn’t be factored into the three-year period.

That, of course, counts on cooler weather in the coming summers.

“That’s why I keep harping on praying for good weather this summer,” Gross said. “It took a very bad July to get us over the standard in 2012. It’ll take a very good July to get us back down.

“The final decision on Wichita’s fate would certainly be helped by having another year in the mix. We’re happy to get a positive result on this, but there’s an awful lot of waiting to do before we discover whether Wichita is designated (noncompliant).”

Although the EPA has made exceptions for certain days exceeding the standard for such things as forest fires, Gross said he thinks this is the first time the agency did that for grass fires.

Several years ago, the EPA turned down a KDHE request to exclude several days because of wildfires, wind and other issues. The federal regulators told the state the request was denied because Kansas didn’t have a smoke management plan, Gross said.

The state implemented such a plan in 2011.

“Without the plan, we wouldn’t have gotten to this point with the EPA,” Gross said.

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or at rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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