Air quality monitor’s absence inexcusable

Public health concerns trump politics

By The Mercury

We’re not quite sure what to make of the Kansas Sierra Club’s allegations about the removal of an air quality monitor outside of Manhattan in April 2013. But given the annual burning of grasslands all around this town each spring, Manhattan certainly ought to have an air quality monitor.

A monitor did operate at the Konza Prairie Biological Station as part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s national air quality network from 2002 until it was taken offline on April 5, 2013. That action coincided with the beginning of the burning season, an annual event that spurs new growth for the cattle that graze on the Flint Hills.

The annual burns have drawn increasing EPA scrutiny in recent years because of their impact on air quality in the Flint Hills and in population centers downwind. The search is on for a solution that will balance the demands for clean air with the economic and cultural impact of the annual burns on the Flint Hills. Well-situated air-quality monitors should be part of the process. So, perhaps, is considering whether to schedule some of the annual burning in the fall or even the winter.

The Sierra Club contends that at the urging of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Kansas State University, which manages the Konza, and the Nature Conservancy, which owns the land on which the monitor operated, tried to get EPA approval to shut the monitor down in April 2013. The Sierra Club asserts that officials at K-State complied “not only because they feared limitations to their prescribed burning research but because of possible political repercussions from EPA sanctions.”

Said Craig Volland, Kansas Sierra Club’s Air Quality chair: “Nobody distinguished themselves during this episode. As far as we can tell, the public health concerns are still not being addressed.”

As much as we’d like to hear what KSU and KDHE officials have to say in response to Sierra Club allegations, public health concerns alone make the absence of a first-rate air quality monitor for Manhattan inexcusable. One needn’t be a scientist to know that the smoky air that descended on city residents on multiple occasions last spring was unhealthy.

Last April, Jason Orr, Riley County’s public health emergency coordinator, and Pat Collins, the county’s emergency management director, took their concerns about the inability to monitor air quality to Riley County commissioners.  Mr. Orr, observing that the nearest monitor is in Topeka, told commissioners, “Not having a monitoring station makes it very difficult to really understand what pollutants are present in our atmosphere.”

That’s not close enough. We need a monitor here, the sooner the better.

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