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Study asked Wichita residents to rank environmental concerns

Lack of recycling, air pollution and the health of the Arkansas River are three of the most important environmental issues affecting Wichita, according to a study involving more than 1,500 residents.

Researchers at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita are now planning projects to address those three problems.

Over the past two years, the Wichita Initiative to Renew the Environment held more than 50 meetings around the community asking people about issues affecting them and their neighborhoods.

Project manager Jack Brown said this was the first time he knew of where the Wichita community had been asked to identify and rank its concerns about the local environment.

"This was a more grassroots and basic way of finding out what the community's concerns are," Brown said. "I think a lot of people don't think they have a say or a way to get involved."

The group has applied for a $300,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. Brown, who is also a research instructor at the medical school, said he is confident the projects will receive funding, but the group won't find out until October.

Trash disposal was ranked as the biggest concern by residents, said Elizabeth Ablah, a medical school professor who is the project's principal investigator.

"The community is riled up with lack of recycling and other alternatives to trash disposal," she said.

People kept talking about the lack of recycling, she said. "That it needs to be mandated, that it needs to be more convenient."

The initiative hopes to use grant money to help local businesses find ways to increase recycling and minimize their waste.

Ablah said businesses can save money by reusing products or buying recycled materials, but many don't know of the opportunities that are available.

Air pollution

Although they aren't the biggest source for air pollution in Wichita, emissions from cars, trucks, lawnmowers and other mobile sources were rated by residents as a bigger concern than emissions from factories.

Combined emissions from unregulated sources such as service stations, home heating, nail salons, body shops and dry cleaners account for 53 percent of the ozone-causing emissions in the city, compared to the 39 percent from vehicles.

The initiative suggests developing better mass transit systems in Wichita and creating more bike and walking paths as ways to reduce air pollution.

It also plans to work with organizations with large motor pools — such as city government and Wichita public schools — to turn vehicles off instead of idling.

Ablah said cutting back on idling is something anyone can do and reducing emissions can be as simple as turning off the car when waiting to pick kids up from school.

Automobile emissions combine to form ozone, which exacerbates symptoms of asthma and other respiratory problems, said Randy Owen, the air quality program supervisor for the city.

Wichita is close to exceeding the EPA's air quality standards for ozone, Owen said. If that happens, strict regulations would be imposed, costing individuals, businesses and the city up to $100 million over 10 years.

Arkansas River

Keeping the Arkansas River free from pollutants and safe for recreational activities ranked as the second biggest environmental concern, Brown said.

Wastewater and chemicals such as pesticides that run off lawns are the major threats to the cleanliness of the river, according Nate Davis, president of the nonprofit Arkansas River Coalition.

Chemicals that enter the river affect aquatic wildlife, said Joe Pajor, assistant director of public works for the city. The river is not considered safe for swimming — Pajor said most rivers aren't— but it is safe for other activities like canoeing or kayaking.

The initiative plans to plant "rain gardens" consisting of plants, gravel, soil and sand along the river's banks to filter sediments and pollution out of water as it runs into the river.

Brown envisions the gardens serving as models for the public to build smaller-scale gardens of their own.

The group also is putting labels on storm sewers warning of the dangers of dumping grass clippings or chemicals directly into the sewer.

"What goes in there (sewers) goes into the river without any additional treatment," Pajor said.

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