Politics & Government

Wichita area's air may soon violate EPA standards

Using a gas-powered lawn mower during the heat of the day for an hour creates more ozone pollution than driving a well-tuned car from Wichita to Kansas City.

Think about that.

"There's no catalytic converter on a mower," said Kay Johnson, environmental initiatives manager for the city of Wichita. "It's just spewing emissions."

That's the type of thing the Wichita area will have to think about as it teeters on the edge of violating federal air quality regulations.

Today, the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, is a good time to start.

The environmental movement spurred the creation of such federal legislation as the Clean Air Act of 1970, which requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set air quality standards.

Ozone pollutants are on the forefront of environmental concerns. That's the stuff that stings your eyes and causes breathing problems.

Most affected by low-elevation ozone are those with respiratory illnesses, young children and the elderly.

That hits home. In Sedgwick County, one out of 11 children under 18 years old has asthma, Johnson said.

"We're concerned about compliance," she said, "but also about health."

Air quality guidelines

The Wichita area has come close to violating the EPA's air quality standards for years. If new federal guidelines are adopted in August, violation appears imminent.

EPA's existing rule calls for a limit of 75 parts per billion for ozone pollution. The metropolitan area of Sedgwick, Butler, Sumner and Harvey counties averaged 72 last year. The new guidelines call for somewhere between 60 and 70 parts per billion.

Compliance is measured over three years.

With the ozone season just starting, the Wichita area's number so far is 66, Johnson said. The ozone season runs from April 1 to Oct. 31.

"We know based on historical records that we're going to have some not-so-good days in the summer," she said. "We've been fortunate the last couple of years to have had cool, mild summers. That has really helped us."

The hotter the day, the more stuff — gasoline, solvents and so on — evaporates. Sunlight causes those liquids to react in such a way as to create ozone at a low elevation.

It's not for lack of trying that the area stands where it is. The Wichita Air Quality Control program is 39 years old — just a year younger than Earth Day.

Experts say that it's not so much that the area's air is getting worse. Instead, the standards are becoming tougher.

"If they'd stayed the same as 10 or 15 years ago, we would be within bounds," said Bill Wentz, a professor of aerospace engineering at Wichita State University who has specialized in energy conversion.

He said many of the area's major manufacturers "cleaned up their act years ago because they could see these rules coming."

"We've picked the low-hanging fruit," Wentz said. "Now we're getting down to the little companies — the dry cleaners, the painting establishments.

"And also it's the cars."

Violations are costly

Meanwhile, EPA has tightened the leash.

"They've made the standards more stringent because they know that even these low levels of ozone do create health problems," Wentz said.

Many major cities — from Kansas City to San Francisco — have been out of compliance for years.

"The reason we've escaped so far is we have pretty good breezes to stir this stuff up," Wentz said about Wichita.

Those same winds can cause smoke from range burning in the Flint Hills to drift over the area or push up pollutants from large communities to the south.

Violating the standards could be costly.

Johnson and Wyandotte counties have to meet 10 to 15 different rules because the Kansas City area is out of compliance, said Tom Gross, section chief for air monitoring and planning for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

"If you drive up to Kansas City, you'll be buying a different gasoline that evaporates at a lower rate," Gross said. "And it costs a little more to produce that fuel."

For the four counties in the Wichita area, Johnson said, being out of compliance could cost $10 million a year for a decade, and that's a conservative estimate.

The costs probably wouldn't include fines. David Bryan, a spokesman for the EPA's regional office in Kansas City, Kan., said he couldn't recall a community being hit with a large fine because it was out of compliance.

"The key issue is protecting public health," Bryan said. "Fining folks doesn't do that. What we want to do is work toward less pollutants in the air.

"We want to come in and work with the community or the business to solve the problem."

Nonetheless, staying within compliance is significant.

"We're once again on the edge," Johnson said. "It's important people adjust their daily activities, so they can reduce their air footprint."

Target: vehicle idling

A number of steps are being taken to reduce pollutants.

Over the past two years, KDHE's Gross said, the state has doled out about $8 million in federal money as grants to companies, particularly those operating school buses, to reduce emissions from diesel engines.

Cutting down on vehicle idling is a targeted area.

"Idling is bad," Wentz said. "Not only are you wasting fuel, it's a very inefficient way to run an engine. An engine is designed to run under power, so you're producing more emissions when idling than cruising."

In a study done for Minneapolis, which adopted an anti-idling vehicle ordinance in 2008, the report said 10 seconds of idling uses more fuel than restarting a car.

"If you see two or three cars in a drive-through," Johnson said, "it's probably quicker to just walk in."

Green Biz Wichita is also trying to make a difference after originating out of the same grassroots spirit that forged Earth Day.

Candace Wilson, marketing director for the Wichita accounting firm of Kennedy and Coe, was looking for answers about how her office could do a better job of recycling.

She had a tough time finding resources. So in January, she co-founded Green Biz to serve as a one-stop resource for businesses. About 50 businesses have joined.

While Green Biz started with recycling ideas, it has taken up the anti-idling cause.

"Businesses with fleets can implement a policy that their drivers don't idle," Wilson said. "Or that delivery trucks aren't sitting out there idling."

While Green Biz focuses on businesses, Wilson said she can see employees using the ideas at home.

"Things can trickle down," she said. "We can all do something."

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