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Wichita on verge of air pollution violation

The Wichita area is on the brink of exceeding federal air pollution standards, and city officials Wednesday urged people to make small changes in their daily lives to stave off costly penalties.

That includes things like driving less, mowing grass after 6 p.m. and using less electricity.

But even with those changes, Sedgwick, Butler, Sumner and Harvey counties may exceed limits.

The area barely complies with the EPA's existing 75-parts-per-billion limit for ozone pollution — it recently averaged 72 parts per billion.

The EPA is expected to adopt new standards in August somewhere between 60 and 70 parts per billion.

"Whether or not we go out of attainment this year or next year, we're likely to go out of attainment," said Kay Johnson, the city's environmental initiatives manager. "The higher our ozone levels are each year, the harder it is to get back into compliance. So it's important that we all change our habits now."

When an area exceeds pollution standards, federal officials classify it based on how badly it surpassed the limits — marginal, moderate, serious, severe and extreme.

Midwest cities tend to be marginal and moderate, said Josh Tapp, chief of the EPA's region 7 air planning branch.

Those designations trigger a plan developed by the state that addresses vehicle emissions, the handling of pollutants such as solvents, and limits on large manufacturers.

But the exact consequences Wichita would face won't be certain until the EPA adopts its new pollution standards, Tapp said.

It will mostly likely would be costly for businesses, government and residents.

Johnson said a conservative estimate would be $10 million a year for a decade — a cost shared by everyone in the four-county area.

More immediately, for drivers, the state could opt to require annual vehicle inspections, which cost about $30 and often force drivers to get costly repairs.

'Be Air Aware'

The Wichita area has come close to violating air quality standards for years, but now a violation seems imminent.

The area narrowly avoided a violation last year. The rather cool summer led to a bit less ozone creation, Johnson said.

Ground-level ozone is created when sunlight, heat and emissions react together. It's a main ingredient in smog.

In higher concentrations, it can harm lungs and lead to emergency room visits and costly health problems, particularly among those with asthma and other respiratory problems.

The official ozone season runs from April 1 to Oct. 30, which is why the city had its news conference.

"If we all do our part, we protect our health and save money," Mayor Carl Brewer said.

Johnson said that local industries contribute about a quarter of the pollution, but have reduced their emissions greatly in recent years.

Pollution also drifts from cities in Oklahoma and Texas — and Wichita's drifts primarily north to places like Omaha and Kansas City.

But the majority of the pollution stems from individual activities, from barbecuing to fueling a vehicle to mowing the lawn.

Johnson even suggested people go into fast-food restaurants instead of using a drive-through, where their vehicle idles.

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