The federal government has decided not to change its rules on dust in the wind, giving Wichita one less pollutant to worry about and allaying fears that Kansas farmers would have to work to limit particulates kicked up from tractors and dirt roads.
But the Environmental Protection Agency's decision doesn't mean the end of Wichita's problems with air quality.
The metro area continues to flirt with the legal ceiling on the gaseous pollutant ozone, which comes mainly from industry and cars. And city officials say we'll need a very good 2012 to stay in compliance and avoid inconvenient and expensive air-quality cleanup requirements.
EPA officials announced Monday that agency head Lisa Jackson is recommending no change in the standards for large particulates in the atmosphere, the so-called PM10 standard.
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PM10 particles come from a variety of sources, including wildfires, range burning, construction, mining and farming activity.
That the standards will remain the same is good news for Kansas farmers, said Steve Swaffer, director of Natural Resources for the Kansas Farm Bureau.
"Obviously from the farmer's viewpoint that would be potentially disastrous if you regulate ordinary farm activities," Swaffer said.
He said the bureau is pleased the EPA made the decision it did, although he noted that the regulations have to be reviewed every five years under the Clean Air Act.
Concerns over potential particulate regulations were so strong that 112 members of the U.S. House of Representatives — including all four members from Kansas — signed on as co-sponsors of Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011.
That bill, and a companion Senate measure, would have blocked the EPA from establishing new particulate standards for a year and exempted almost all farm dust from the Clean Air Act.
Wichita is in compliance with the current PM10 standards, despite repeated periods in April when smoke from controlled agricultural burning in the Flint Hills invades the city.
Humidity helps, said John Schlegel, director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Department, which oversees environmental issues in Sedgwick County.
Schlegel said he had a lot of experiences with particulate pollution when he worked in Las Vegas during a period of rapid growth and intense construction activity, but Kansas' climate tends to keep the dust down to a reasonable level.
"I just don't think we have much of a particulate problem here," Schlegel said.
But Wichita does have a problem with ozone, another by-product of agriculture. Twice this year, burning of rangeland in the Flint Hills pushed the Wichita area over the threshold for ozone.
Using the EPA's method of calculating compliance, using a rolling three-year average, the Wichita area is technically just over the national standard of .075 parts per million of ozone, at .07533, agency records show.
However, Wichita is still in compliance because the measurement is rounded down, meaning the city's pollution level would need to go to .076 to trigger mandatory efforts to reduce pollution.
Limits on industrial emissions, automobile smog inspection programs and special blends of gasoline during high-ozone summer months are among the requirements that have been used in other areas.
Officials estimate that falling out of compliance with air standards would cost the Wichita region about $10 million a year.
But avoiding that fate is going to take some effort, according to city officials. This year, the monitoring stations in the Wichita area showed ozone levels in the range of .08 parts per million — exceeding the federal standards.
To keep the three-year average in the .075 range, the area's pollution level will need to drop in 2012.
The City Council voted last month to use grant money on a plan to try to voluntarily reduce pollution during ozone season.
"We're going to have to have a really good air quality year next year to avoid going into non-attainment," Schlegel said.