A state plan to limit the effects of Flint Hills burning on ozone levels is high on volunteer efforts and low on regulations.
Under the Flint Hills smoke management plan unveiled Thursday at the Sedgwick County Extension Education Center, ranchers would be allowed to continue burning their grasslands during April but would be asked to be more selective in their practices.
The plan would mandate restrictions on other types of burning in April in 16 counties — the core ones for the Flint Hills and the counties of Sedgwick, Johnson and Wyandotte. What couldn't be burned that month would include land-clearing debris, crop residues, construction debris and yard waste.
The hope is that would be enough to reduce ozone levels, which are driven up each April when millions of grassland acres are burned in Flint Hills. The rest is up to the ranchers and farmers to voluntarily follow best burning practices.
If ozone levels aren't reduced, metropolitan areas such as Wichita could violate federal air quality regulations.
"It's a reasonable start," Chase County extension agent Mike Holder said after the meeting attended by about 100 people.
But he said, "To me, it's questionable whether it really will have a positive impact on the ozone for the communities. That's not really a nice quote, but it's realistic."
The plan also contains contingency measures, such as expanding the number of counties included in the required restrictions if needed.
"This is a working document," said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, chair of the Senate's Natural Resources Committee and co-chair of the committee that developed the plan. "It's a work in progress."
Tom Gross, Kansas Department of Health and Environment's section chief for air monitoring and planning, said how many changes are needed and how effective the plan is will "depend on how well people follow the regulations."
The plan will take effect as soon as the regulations can be reviewed by a legislative committee and approved by the state's attorney general and department of administration, Gross said. No action from the Legislature is required.
Gross said he hopes to have the plan in place by April.
The plan was finalized over the past eight months after being developed by a broad swath of stakeholders, including ranchers, Kansas State University, city and state officials, the Nature Conservancy and the American Lung Association.
"We just did the easy part," said Rep. Tom Moxley, R-Council Grove, a rancher who joined McGinn as a committee co-chair. "Now comes the hard part."
That would be its implementation.
Work on the plan was ratcheted up last spring with the expectation that more stringent federal Environmental Protection Agency ozone standards were fast approaching.
The tougher standards were delayed several times this year and now aren't expected to happen until July 2011, said Josh Tapp, chief of air planning and development for the EPA's Region 7 office in Kansas City.
At the current standard, which is 0.075 parts per million, the Wichita area's ozone levels exceeded the federal limits once this past April and three times in April 2009, said Kay Johnson, environmental initiatives manager for Wichita.
The standard that the EPA is expected to adopt next summer would be between 0.060 and 0.070.
In a worst-case scenario, if the four-county Wichita metropolitan area had repeated air-quality violations, businesses and residents could be asked to make changes that could cost $10 million a year for a decade.
"If the farmers and ranchers can help out, the plan might be effective," Johnson said.
Tapp said the EPA isn't looking to punish anyone or to ban burning in the Flint Hills.
"We're there to work with you," he told the audience. "We unequivocally support this plan."
He said it is good that Kansas is taking this preemptive step rather than waiting until later.
Education is key
Gross and others said it is important that everyone become familiar with the plan so they can do their part.
"Education is very important," he said.
He said he will boil the 52-page plan into a four- or five-page summary pamphlet to provide "bite-size" information.
Ranchers will be asked to consider whether they need to burn each year and asked to burn when conditions are best.
"I realize not every day you need to burn is going to be a good day to burn," Gross said. "It's not black and white. It's gray. We're giving you tools to make an informed decision."
Before April, a website will be set up so ranchers will have easy access to information on the current ozone level, weather conditions and other factors.
Besides the three counties with large metropolitan areas, the counties affected by the regulations are Butler, Chase, Chautauqua, Cowley, Elk, Geary, Greenwood, Lynn, Marion, Morris, Pottawatomie, Riley and Wabaunsee.
The plan also calls for two counties — Chase and Greenwood — to take part in a pilot program next spring. Ranchers will be asked to voluntarily provide burning information to help develop a predictive computer modeling tool and fire management practices.