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Energy and Environment

Kansas Environmental Group Wants Grass Burning Limits For Flint Hills

Dan Charles
The Kansas Flint Hills minutes after burning.

The Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club has asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to step in and order Kansas to impose tighter controls on grass burning to protect air quality in the Flint Hills.

Ranchers in the Flint Hills, the last large expanse of unplowed tallgrass prairie in North America, burn grasslands in the spring to kill off invasive vegetation and promote growth of native grasses for livestock. Communities as far away as eastern Nebraska are known to experience pollutants from the thick smoke, thanks to Kansas winds.

Despite environmentalists' fears of dwindling action by the EPA at a national level, the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club says it hopes the agency's regional administrator in Kansas City will initiate discussions to update the plan "with some new thinking." 

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment's current Smoke Management Plan went into effect in 2010. The plan aims to reduce the number of days when ozone and other pollutants' levels exceed federal health guidelines. But according to the Sierra Club, Kansas communities had more days of pollutants exceeding federal limits in the first five years the smoke plan went into effect, than in the five years before the plan was initiated.

In a letter to the local agency, Craig Volland, chairman of the Air Quality Committee for the Sierra Club, said that from 2006 to 2010, pollutant levels during the burn season exceeded National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) 17 times. 

"In the five burn seasons [excluding 2013] after December 2010 there were 27 such exceedances of the NAAQS and fewer total acres were burned," Volland says.  "In 2013 there was almost no burning due to drought the previous year."

He says the number of continuing exceedances, even when adjusted to exclude pollutants from burning in neighboring Oklahoma, shows the state's current plan has failed to protect the public health. 

Volland also alleges that the KDHE has failed to continuously monitor fine particulates over a 280-mile area after shutting down an ozone monitor near Manhattan, Kansas.

"Currently we must wait for the burn plume to reach Lincoln, Nebraska, to obtain a timely and accurate characterization of air quality downwind of a typical heavy burn day in the Flint Hills," Volland says in the letter. "This is too late to warn the predominantly rural and small-town citizens in northeast and north central Kansas."

He also notes that there are three Native American reservations in the area.

"Continued delay in resolving these issues is not acceptable," Volland says.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment did not respond to requests for comment.


Follow Abigail Beckman on Twitter @AbigailKMUW.

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