Skirting failure on clean-air standards, city takes action to start reducing smog

Even Kansas wind wasn’t enough to save Wichita from going over its smog limits this year.

And if the area doesn’t reduce its smog production, pronto, residents and businesses could get hit with some inconvenient and expensive federal air-quality mandates.

In a last-ditch effort to address that problem and help get the city back in compliance with air-quality standards, the City Council today approved spending $150,000 on a program to encourage residents and businesses to voluntarily reduce emissions.

The project will include three parts:

– Creating a system to alert residents on high ozone-level days. In addition to warning people to cut down on driving, burning and other smog-producing activities, the advisories can also guide when children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems should limit their outdoor activities.

– Setting up an outreach program for businesses to help them voluntarily reduce emissions.

– Launching a public-information campaign to raise community awareness and support for smog reduction.

The council voted unanimously to spend $30,000 of city money in matching funds, to obtain a $120,000 federal grant for the project.

Council member Janet Miller said she strongly supports the effort, although the grant-funded project alone won’t be enough to keep the area in compliance.

But it is a start, she said.

“We’ve got to keep taking steps to stay in attainment (of pollution standards) as long as possible,” she said. “Once we’re out of attainment, we’re going to have to do this (voluntary effort) and a whole lot more.”

City officials estimate that falling out of compliance with federal clean-air rules would trigger federal mandates costing local residents and businesses about $10 million.

To meet air-quality standards, the metropolitan area needs to keep the ozone level below .075 parts per million at three monitoring stations, in Peck, central Wichita and Sedgwick. Trouble ensues if the levels rise above .075 more than three times in a year.

This year, the metropolitan area exceeded the allowance at all three stations: Peck, .078; Wichita, .079 and Sedgwick, .080.

The Wichita area didn’t immediately go out of compliance with the federal rules only because the smog results are averaged over three years, said Kay Johnson, manager of environmental initiatives for the city.

But what it does mean is that the metro area will go out of compliance next year, unless residents and businesses reduce air pollution to about the levels they were in 2009, Johnson said.

“If we have another year like this year, it will be a big problem,” Johnson said.

If the smog levels don’t go down, the Environmental Protection Agency will probably step in and require mandatory smog-reduction measures, she said.

And, because most of the city’s big industrial companies have already substantially reduced their smog output, the corrective measures could include car inspection and repair requirements and stricter emission regulations on small businesses such as aircraft machine shops, auto body shops and dry cleaners.

She said agricultural burning in the Flint Hills, smog floating north from Oklahoma and emissions from local cars and industries have all contributed to the problem.

“We have to (reduce) at least one of these things,” Johnson said. And “All we can control is what we do ourselves.”