Moran's bill would exempt range burning from air quality regulation

Two environmental issues — Wichita's clean air and the fires that help preserve the Flint Hills' tallgrass prairies — have been pitted against each other for years.

Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran has taken a step he hopes will resolve some of that conflict. He recently introduced legislation to prevent federal environmental rules from restricting planned burning each year in the Flint Hills.

But even in sponsoring the bill, called the Flint Hills Preservation Act, Moran acknowledged Tuesday that he doubted it would get passed. In fact, the first-term senator introduced a similar bill in the House last year that never got a hearing.

Just like a year ago, the Senate bill is an attempt to "educate a very urban and suburban Congress and to get a discussion going," Moran said.

The bill would exempt communities, such as Wichita, from regulatory actions by the Environmental Protection Agency if smoke from the Flint Hills increases their air pollution.

For the tallgrass prairie's ecosystem and grazing cattle to get maximum benefits, the burnings must be in April. But only about a fourth of April days are suitable for burning because of weather.

At the same time, the burn occasionally drives the Wichita area's ozone levels over federal air pollution limits. It has happened three times this year — the most recent one coming on April 29 as the result of Oklahoma burnings.

After those standards were exceeded the first time, on April 6, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer asked state and federal environmental officials to cut the city a break by not penalizing it for "short-term air quality problems" during the annual burn.

"I'm a little surprised they haven't gotten back to us yet," Brewer said.

City officials have said that if the EPA designated Wichita as a nonattainment area, it could cost the community $10 million a year in overall economic impact.

The issue has been addressed in various ways numerous times.

A broad swath of stakeholders, including city and state officials, legislators, ranchers and Kansas State University, developed a temporary Flint Hills smoke management plan that was announced in December.

The plan is high on volunteer efforts and low on regulations.

Implemented for the first time this spring, it allowed ranchers to continue burning during April but asked them to be more selective in their practices.

It also restricted other types of April burning in 16 counties — the core ones for the Flint Hills and the metro counties of Sedgwick, Johnson and Wyandotte.

Monday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment will hold a public hearing in Topeka to discuss whether the plan should be made permanent.

But Moran noted that even with that plan the federal standards were still violated this year. More needs to be done, such as getting the EPA to back off on its standards for range burning, he said.

But that means teaching Range Burning 101 to a lot of folks in Congress.

"This is a serious issue for us," he said, "but most members of Congress — House and Senate — wouldn't understand it. They don't necessarily know about the value of the Flint Hills. They certainly don't now about ranching practices or land management."

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla. —said the bill will "provide a simple solution that balances our states' environmental and economic needs."

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