Questions and Answers: Flint Hills Burning and Air Quality Exceedances
Contact for EPA Region 7: Gina Grier, Life Scientist, at 913-551-7078 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why is Flint Hills burning an important issue in the Midwest?
What are some of the environmental and health implications?
Who are some of EPA's partners on this issue?
What is EPA's long-range view of prescribed burning as a grassland management tool related to air quality issues?
What determines an exceedance?
What is the difference between an exceedance and a violation?
How does EPA view the effectiveness of the Flint Hills SMP?
What are EPA's expectations of the SMP for it to be deemed a success?
How does EPA view temporary spikes exceeding ozone and particulate limits in metropolitan areas, triggered by concentrated pasture burning on a given day?
What are some of the future smoke management activities?
What regulatory actions have been taken by EPA?
Helpful links - Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE)
On average, more than two million acres of tallgrass prairie is annually maintained and regenerated by fire, mostly during the month of April. Burning of the native prairie pastures sustains the ecology by minimizing the encroachment of woody and invasive species, and improves the productivity of the rangeland. Unfortunately, these fires can contribute to impaired air quality in Kansas City, Wichita, Topeka and adjacent downwind states.
The tallgrass prairie once stretched across 170 million acres from Canada to Texas and Kansas to Kentucky. Today, only 4 percent remains. Without prescribed burning, the prairies rapidly become overgrown and the native ecosystem is lost.
Clean air is one of our most precious resources; it is everyone's duty to do what we can to preserve it. An individual can go days without food and hours without water, but only minutes without air. Air pollution is one of the most serious threats to human health and the environment that exists. It can cause serious respiratory problems, especially for people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Currently, 30 million adults and children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with asthma. Asthma sufferers can be severely affected by air pollution. Impaired air quality can also aggravate existing health problems for the elderly and those with heart or respiratory diseases.
Each day, air pollution causes thousands of illnesses leading to lost days at school and work. Air pollution also reduces agricultural crop and commercial forest yields by billions of dollars each year.
EPA is working with Flint Hills ranchers, KDHE, Kansas State University, Kansas Livestock Association, Kansas Farm Bureau, Natural Resource Conservation Service, The Nature Conservancy and others to solve common problems, respecting each other's needs and rights.
The Flint Hills area is a national treasure. It is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world, and prescribed burning is an essential tool for preservation of the ecosystem. Research at the Konza Prairie Biological Station has demonstrated that without fire, a native prairie ecosystem can be consumed by invasive woody vegetation including red cedars.
EPA understands the value of prescribed burning as a means of preserving the tallgrass prairie. The natural and intrinsic value provided by this ecosystem is limitless and there is a real and quantifiable value from the commercial and agricultural activities that this ecosystem supports.
Protection of public health is one of EPA's highest priorities. EPA and KDHE have been working toward a balance between protection of public health and preservation of the native tallgrass prairie ecosystem since 2003. Although much progress has been made, EPA and its partners have yet to reach the goal of reducing the fire emissions, while preserving the fire-dependent tallgrass ecology.
The goal of Flint Hills partners is to find a balance of ecological, economical and health impacts of prescribed burning to reduce and/or eliminate exceedances of the air quality standards through implementation of the Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan (SMP). EPA and KDHE are fortunate to have the support of a wide range of stakeholders throughout the Flint Hills.
EPA continues to support research that helps the public better understand the correlations between ecological, environmental and agricultural management, and air emissions. Also, it is important to support research about innovative management practices that promote wildlife habitat and forecasting tools that can be used by burn managers to reduce the impact of smoke on air quality.
Since the Clean Air Act was implemented, progress has been made toward cleaner air, and Flint Hills partners are confident that we will continue to make progress in reducing the impact of prescribed burning on air quality. EPA encourages the Smoke Advisory Committee to continue to evaluate and revise the SMP to include new research, improved technology, alternative management practice incentives, education, and good stewardship practices to improve the air quality and reduce the impacts from prescribed burning on public health.
An ozone exceedance occurs when monitored ozone concentrations exceed the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). Ozone is collected as an hourly average of continuous data and then used to determine the 8-hour average value for the day. An exceedance of the 8-hour standard is an 8-hour averaged value that is greater than 0.075 parts per million (ppm).
An ozone exceedance occurs when a monitor records ambient levels of ozone above a standard. A violation of an ozone standard (as opposed to an exceedance) is based on 3-year averages of data, so monitoring an exceedance does not necessarily mean that a violation of the standard has occurred. Violations of the 8-hour standard are determined using the annual 4th-highest daily maximum 8-hour ozone value at each monitor. A violation requires a 3-year average of the annual 4th-highest daily maximum 8-hour value that is greater than 0.075 ppm. In other words, the 8-hour values for each day during a year for a specific monitor are ranked from highest to lowest. Then, the 4th-highest value for three consecutive years is averaged. If the 3-year average is greater than 0.075 ppm, a violation of the 8-hour standard has occurred at that specific monitoring site.
EPA is pleased with the effectiveness of the Flint Hills SMP. We believe progress was made through collaboration, and we are optimistic that the impacts from smoke will continue to diminish through support and guidance from the SMP and continued education on the Kansas Flint Hills Smoke Management website .
The major components of the SMP include: 1) communication, 2) education, 3) pollution dispersion, and 4) pollution reduction. This plan was also the driving force for creation of the website. The smoke forecasting tools on this website allow landowners to predict good days for burning.
Prescribed fires can be planned and executed in a way that minimizes downwind impacts and prevents property damage or health impacts. A successful SMP will continue to evolve to minimize the negative air quality impacts due to smoke from prescribed fires.
EPA is encouraged by stakeholder discussions and collaborations that took place during the development of the SMP. EPA would like to see all stakeholders' support and continued communications during future burn seasons.
EPA reviews temporary spikes to make sure we are appropriately alerting the public. The Agency also reviews data trends to understand the factors which contribute to air quality issues. EPA and KDHE work together to analyze a variety of air quality data in assessing the nature of an air quality episode.
As previously mentioned, KDHE, with support from EPA, provides timely information to the public in any case in which the air quality is unhealthy to breathe. This timely notification is critical because it provides valuable information to the public, especially to sensitive populations such as children and older adults who have respiratory issues.
The purpose of the SMP is to minimize these spikes and their impact on public health. The SMP demonstrates to the public that there is a commitment from a variety of agencies to continually evaluate air quality impacts from prescribed burning and to work together to protect the public.
EPA Region 7 air quality staff have been, and will continue to be, actively involved with KDHE and Kansas State University (KSU), as well as other public health officials, ranchers, local governments, and the nearly two million Kansans whose economic livelihood and health depend on the way we reconcile national air quality goals and responsibilities.
It is important to balance the management of tallgrass prairies and the health impacts of prairie burning. Achieving that balance requires enlisting both rural and urban Kansans in a common cause: to manage our actions on rural ranches and suburban freeways to ensure our air remains safe to breathe.
The Kansas Flint Hills Smoke Management website will continue to be updated and land managers will be encouraged to use it to predict burning impacts on downwind communities.
KDHE is continuing outreach through enhancing the website and updating its smoke forecasting tools. Continued education about those forecasting tools is critical to the SMP's success.
Prescribed Burning Workshops are conducted with the cooperation and assistance of several agencies including Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS); Farm Service Agency (FSA); Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT); Kansas Forest Service (KFS); U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS); National Weather Service (NWS); and KSU Extension, as well as local fire and emergency management staff and local producers with burn experience. Prescribed Burning Workshops were held in January and February of 2013, designed to inform producers about the nature and behavior of fire. Workshop participants were either beginning to use fire management techniques or experienced ranchers/landowners who wanted to be well-informed on topics such as the Flint Hills SMP, local and state regulations, and the website's forecasting tools.
On Dec. 28, 2012, EPA approved KDHE's exceptional event request. In this request, KDHE was able to show that smoke from prescribed fires conducted under the SMP caused or contributed to exceedances of EPA's health-based ozone air quality standard at multiple downwind monitors for April 6, 12 and 13, 2011. In approving this request, EPA determined that Kansas' efforts to control the impacts of smoke on the public from Flint Hills prescribed fires were reasonable and, therefore, the data could be excluded from regulatory review.
We encourage the Flint Hills partners to continue to explore future approaches that might employ alternative tallgrass prairie management techniques, such as patch burning and the expansion of time windows for seasonal burning to reduce the magnitude and intensity of burns. Such strategies will become critical if future exceedances of the standard are recorded.
Commendable progress has been made through a strong collaborative effort, and we are optimistic that the impacts from smoke will continue to diminish.