By Craig Volland, Air Quality Chair
Without prior public notice the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stopped monitoring for ozone pollution at the Konza Prairie site near Manhattan, Kansas. The monitor was shut on April 5, 2013. This monitor has been collecting valuable data since 2002, and has also consistently indicated levels of pollution high enough during certain times of the year to cause significant health impacts in the area.
In response to our inquiry, EPA says they complied with a request from the landowner, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and from Kansas State University (KSU), the operating agency, to remove the monitor. Documents attached to EPA’s response indicate that TNC and KSU were concerned that the monitor would be used for regulatory compliance purposes and interfere with their research on rangeland burning.
Our analysis, however, showed that two thirds of the 43 times where ozone readings at this monitor have exceeded the current national ozone standard since 2002, have occurred in the summer, not burning season. This indicates a serious ongoing threat to the health of residents of Manhattan, Ks. and the surrounding area.
According to Dr. Sheryl Magzamen, Asst. Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, high ozone levels, especially at or above the current standard, are associated with health effects, particularly among vulnerable members of our communities such as the elderly and children with asthma.
We note that the Konza Prairie ozone monitor was particularly valuable because it was located within the Flint Hills itself and available to assess effects on residents very near the burning. In their 2010 Smoke Management Plan KDHE promised to consult with the Centers for Disease Control to develop a more comprehensive study on the potential health impacts of the burning in the Flint Hills. The discontinuance of the Konza Prairie monitor will likely complicate that task.
The Konza Prairie monitor, installed in 2002, is not part of the network of air quality monitors run by state agencies for the usual regulatory purposes. It is operated by U.S. EPA directly as part of CASTNET. The purpose of CASTNET and a description of the Konza Prairie monitor may be accessed through the links at the end of this article.
Due to the seriousness of this matter the Chapter issued a press release on April 17 to alert the public. This led to articles in Greenwire and Inside EPA, two national newsletters widely read by the regulatory community. We also submitted Kansas Open Records requests to KDHE and Kansas State University and a Freedom of
Information Act request to EPA.
As this goes to press we have received some, but not all, of the requested documents. Our preliminary analysis is that KDHE instigated this action to avoid a violation of the national air quality standard for ozone smog in connection with the Flint Hills burning. This is ironic because relatively few acres were burned this year because last year’s drought left little grass to be burned and because of cool, wet weather in April.
We plan to issue a full report on this matter after we have analyzed all the documents. Conservation Co-Chair, Duane Schrag, an experienced journalist, is assisting with this task.