Sierra Club criticizes decision to take air monitor off-line

By The Mercury

The Kansas Sierra Club on Monday criticized the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s push to shut off the air quality monitor more than a year ago at the Konza Prairie Biological Station.

As The Mercury reported oat the time, this monitor, which had been part of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s CASTNET national monitoring network since 2002, was turned off on April 5, 2013.

The EPA complied with requests from The Nature Conservancy, Konza’s land owner, and Kansas State University, the operating agency, to remove the monitor.

The Kansas Sierra Club’s report said the KDHE made arguments to remove the monitor to avoid tighter restrictions on prairie burnings in the Flint Hills. The monitor had previously shown instances of the air exceeding ozone standards in the area during times of controlled burning.

The Sierra Club document claimed Kansas State University officials made the request after listening to KDHE’s arguments “not only because they feared limitations to their prescribed burning research but also because of possible political repercussions from EPA sanctions.”

“Nobody distinguished themselves during this episode,” said Craig Volland, Kansas Sierra Club’s air quality chair, in the report. “As far as we can tell the public health concerns are still not being addressed.”

The club says its conclusions are based on documents obtained from the EPA, KDHE and Kansas State University. Among those conclusions:

“Despite considerable data demonstrating that people in the Manhattan, Kansas area are at times exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution during the April-September ozone season, few participants in the controversy examined this part of the issue.”

“KDHE’s assertion that the monitor did not meet EPA rules for locating a regulatory monitor is substantially without merit.”

“Without any evidence we could find, KSU administrators accepted KDHE’s claim that continued regulatory status of the Konza Prairie monitor could lead to interference with range burning research in the Flint Hills when, to the contrary, this research would likely become more important.”

“(The EPA was) unprepared to deal with this controversy because they have not required landowners and operators to give sufficient notice before shutting monitors in their care. Thus EPA was unable to enforce their plan for public notice and comment, which in this case, could have countered some of the misinformation and led to a more satisfactory solution.”

Officials from KSU and the Konza Prairie did not immediately return calls for comment.

In an April 2013 article in the Mercury, John Briggs, director of the Konza Prairie Biological Station, said KDHE requested the take down of the monitor because it “detected levels (of ozone) that exceed safety standards.”

He said the ozone levels can be attributed in part to the prairie burning in the spring, but high temperatures and high “background materials” from other regions carried in by the wind are the main culprits of the excessive pollution. Briggs said researchers also used the monitor as part of their long-term study of the conditions of the prairie.

“We were disappointed it was taken off-line because of the long-term data,” he said. “We set it up as a research thing, and now it is being used as a regulatory thing.”

At an April 14, 2014, Riley County Commission meeting, Jason Orr, county public health emergency preparedness coordinator, and Pat Collins, county emergency management director, discussed the lack of air quality monitoring.

“Not having a monitoring station makes it very difficult to really understand what pollutants are present in our atmosphere because the closest monitoring station we have is in Topeka,” Orr said.

Collins said there wasn’t a way to gauge the specific air quality the county experienced during the burn season because of the lack of an air quality monitoring station.

He suggested the creation of a task force to look into air quality and the possibility of getting a monitoring station, adding local business could be affected by EPA fines if the air quality is poor.

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