If Wichita’s air quality declines, the cost to residents and businesses will be millions of dollars, city officials said Tuesday.
How much? Tighter regulations, beginning with auto emissions. Two to eight cents more per gallon of gasoline. Higher retail prices everywhere. Higher energy costs. Lost jobs, through business closings and lost economic development opportunities.
Those are the stakes before the city in a decisive summer that will determine whether the Environmental Protection Agency finds Wichita out of “attainment,” a bureaucratic term meaning the city has more than 75 parts of ozone per billion parts of air on average over eight hours.
Ozone is created when sunlight meets nitrogen oxides and organic compounds found in smoke, exhaust and chemical vapors. At high levels, it can lead to more people with respiratory irritations, asthma attacks and heart problems.
Tonya Bronleewe, an air quality specialist with the city, unveiled “Ozone Advance” during a Tuesday workshop at City Hall. Its goal is to make sure ozone levels stay at acceptable levels and keep the city out of potentially costly trouble with the Environmental Protection Agency.
City officials hope to enlist the cities and counties in the Wichita Metropolitan Statistical Area – Sedgwick, Harvey, Sumner and Butler counties – since any pollution penalties imposed by the government would affect all four counties, said Alan King, the city’s director of public works.
A couple of factors affect Wichita’s ozone levels, city staff said. And neither is easily controlled locally.
Generally, hot and humid summer days are the enemy of ozone compliance. And burning materials in Kansas and Oklahoma can cause further problems, Bronleewe said.
Lately, Wichita’s compliance record has edged toward trouble. According to city documents, the city’s ozone measurements were at or slightly above acceptable levels from 2011 through 2013. The city measures air quality at three sites in the county: Peck, the county health department and Sedgwick.
Council member James Clendenin noted that the federally acceptable ozone level – 75 parts per billion – has been lowered from 85 by the EPA. That changed happened in 2008. Any other downward movement in the standard could trump local efforts to cut down air pollution, he said.
Bronleewe said Kansas City officials have successfully battled their way out of air pollution violations into a 10-year probationary period called “maintenance,” where the punitive regulations of non-compliance are reduced.
But in Pima, Ariz., where the city is out of compliance, officials put the annual tab for falling out of attainment at $40 million annually, she said.
The plan includes a variety of tips for the public – for every day during warm weather and for days when an ozone alert is forecast for the following day. Ozone alerts will be announced on electronic highway signs. Citizens will be able to sign up for e-mail alerts. And the city plans to use local media to spread the word.
The centerpiece of the plan will be free bus rides on ozone alert days through the city’s Free Fares program, a local-state partnership to reduce driving.
Bronleewe said she took the bus to and from work on Monday.
“It was a fun experience. It wasn’t as scary as I thought it was,” she said.
City officials also are considering synchronizing stop lights to limit unnecessary car idling, a big contributor to pollution.
For city employees, a no-idling policy will be in place for city vehicles. When ozone alerts are forecast, expect delays in painting, solvent, mowing and small-engine use. Non-essential work and driving will be postponed. All city refueling will occur before 10 a.m. or after 6 p.m. And alternative transportation, such as the city’s Free Fares for bus rides and carpooling, will be promoted.