Wichita would almost certainly be among hundreds of U.S. cities that couldn't meet new clean air standards outlined Thursday by the Obama administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
That could mean engineers in a four-county area would have to prove road projects won't lead to more smog, businesses would have to take measures to cut pollution and drivers would have to have their vehicles pass annual emission tests.
The new proposal would limit smog-producing particles to between 60 and 70 parts per billion. A final number will emerge in coming months.
All three of Wichita's air monitoring locations have registered average smog rates above 60 parts per billion — and some exceed 70.
The monitors are in Peck, Wichita and Park City, and any penalties would affect Sedgwick, Butler, Sumner and Harvey counties.
The area barely complies with the existing 75-parts-per-billion limit; it recently averaged 72 parts per billion.
"We've been saying this for several years, that we've been lucky and that if the regulators move the bar even further, then our luck will run out," said Kay Johnson, director of the city's environmental services department.
Johnson said many industrial businesses in Wichita are monitoring the issue closely. On Jan. 22 and 23, environmental experts will meet at Wichita State University with local government and business officials to discuss ways to deal with regulations.
"The rules are coming so fast that it's very difficult to understand exactly where we will be," Johnson said.
Costs of compliance nationwide could be in the tens of billions of dollars, but the government said the rules would save other billions — as well as lives — in the long run.
More than 300 counties — mainly in southern California, the Northeast and Gulf Coast — already violate the current, looser requirements adopted two years ago by the Bush administration and will find it even harder to reduce smog-forming pollution enough to comply with the law.
The new limits being considered by the EPA could more than double the number of counties in violation and reach places like California's wine country in Napa Valley and rural Trego County, Kan., and its 3,000 residents.
The tighter standards, though costly to implement, will ultimately save billions in avoided emergency room visits, premature deaths, and missed work and school days, the EPA said.
"EPA is stepping up to protect Americans from one of the most persistent and widespread pollutants we face," said agency administrator Lisa Jackson. "Using the best science to strengthen these standards is long overdue action that will help millions of Americans breathe easier and live healthier."
'No regard for cost'
Former President George W. Bush personally intervened in the issue after hearing complaints from electric utilities and other affected industries. His EPA set a standard of 75 parts per billion, stricter than one adopted in 1997 but not as strict as what scientists said was needed to protect public health.
Some of those same industries reiterated their opposition Thursday to a stronger smog standard.
"We probably won't know for a couple of years just what utilities and other emissions sources will be required to do in response to a tighter ozone standard," said John Kinsman, a senior director at the Edison Electric Institute, an industry trade group. "Utilities already have made substantial reductions in ozone-related emissions."
Parts of the country that have already spent decades and millions of dollars fighting smog and are still struggling to meet existing thresholds questioned what more they could do. They've already cut pollution from the easier sources, by increasing monitoring and enforcement and requiring car emissions tests.
"This EPA decision provides the illusion of greater protectiveness, but with no regard for cost, in terms of dollars or in terms of the freedoms that Americans are accustomed to," said Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Texas, with its heavy industry, is home to Houston, one of the smoggiest cities in the nation.
Environmentalists endorsed the new plan. "If EPA follows through, it will mean significantly cleaner air and better health protection," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch.
The EPA estimates meeting the new requirements will cost industry and motorists from $19 billion to as much as $90 billion a year by 2020. The Bush administration had put the cost of meeting its threshold at $7.6 billion to $8.5 billion a year.
The new regulations would mean more controls on large industrial facilities, plus regulating smaller facilities and sources. New federal regulations in the works to improve car and truck fuel economy and curb global warming pollution at large factories will also help communities meet any new standards, the EPA said.
Smog is a respiratory irritant that has been linked to asthma attacks and other illnesses. Global warming is expected to make it worse, since smog is created when emissions from cars, power and chemical plants, refineries and other factories mix in sunlight and heat.
Trego Co. has smog?
But some parts of the country that could be found in violation of the proposed standards have very few cars and little industry. In places like these, smog-forming pollution is being blown in from hundreds of miles away.
Charlene Neish, director of Trego County Economic Development, moved to the rural county in western Kansas a decade ago from Phoenix to escape big-city problems like traffic and air pollution. Neish was shocked that her county, which has about nine people per square mile and virtually no industry, made the list.
"There is absolutely nothing in Trego County," Neish said. "We have wide open spaces and fresh air."