If Wichita fails to comply with federal air quality standards, it would cost residents and businesses about an extra $10 million a year in penalties, officials said Tuesday.
The extra costs could come in the form of restrictions on business growth, higher-priced reformulated gasoline, mandatory auto-emission inspections and expanded air-quality impact studies to qualify for federal highway grants.
“There are some significant consequences to going out of attainment,” warned Public Works Director Alan King.
To fight off those results, city staff laid out a two-year strategy to bring a more scientific approach to measuring smog and its sources, so they can lay out a case that the city is doing its part through voluntary emissions reductions.
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The staff presented the plan at a City Council workshop on Tuesday.
Wichita’s air quality has gotten better in the past three years, and “you see a nice downward trend” in smog, said Public Works Assistant Director Don Henry.
From 2010 to 2014, the worst smog days in the Wichita region exceeded the federal standard of 75 parts per billion of the pollutant ozone – flirting with the threshold for mandatory action to improve the air.
And that was before the Environmental Protection Agency lowered the standard to 70 parts per billion in 2015.
Sedgwick County hasn’t gone above the 70 ppb line since the new standards took effect, but Henry cautioned that that was largely a result of unusually cool and rainy summers – which the city can’t count on forever.
“We also know we need to do better” at emissions reduction, he said.
Since 2012, the city has worked with 14 industry partners to cut emissions through what is called an “ozone advance” program.
Five of the partners – Spirit AeroSystems, Occidental Chemical, ICM ethanol, Kansas State University Extension and the Hesston Fire Department – have crafted and are complying with formal voluntary emission-reduction plans.
In addition, the city has worked with the Wichita school district to cut the amount of time that bus drivers and parents spend idling their vehicles’ engines when dropping off and picking up children at school, said Baylee Cunningham, environmental quality specialist.
Those and other efforts have reduced emissions across the region by more than 376,000 pounds since 2012, city records show.
In terms of pollution reduction, that’s equivalent to taking about 17,300 cars off the road.
This year, the efforts are projected to prevent another 107,000 pounds of pollutants from entering the atmosphere, with greater reductions ahead as the city signs up more partners, Cunningham said.
The new phase of the smog-reduction program will focus primarily on measuring and modeling pollution, said Ben Nelson, strategic services manager.
The first benefit of doing that is that it will give the city a better idea of where major pollution is coming from, allowing officials to focus emission-reduction efforts where they will do the most good, he said.
The second benefit is that it could allow Wichita to negotiate a better deal with regulators if the city does get out of compliance with air-quality standards.
Wichita has long contended that much of its smog problem comes from pollution blown north from Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana, along with the agricultural range burning in rural Kansas that blankets the city with smoke every year.
Better data will put the city in a better position to contend that it’s doing more for clean air than other areas and to argue for lighter penalties that would have less impact on urban residents and businesses, Nelson said.
“We want to be judged based on what is under our control and not get penalized for stuff that’s outside our control,” he said.
Washington politics could also come into play.
The Trump administration has indicated it will loosen environmental regulations and cut EPA funding, while Republicans in Congress have introduced a bill to abolish the agency entirely.
However, the city is proceeding on the assumption it will still need to meet the current air-quality standards, City Manager Robert Layton said.
He said even if the EPA goes away, some agency will still have to enforce the Clean Air Act, which is a matter of federal law.