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As Earth Day nears, new reports on how clean Lawrence's air is and how not green Kansas is


As someone who lives with a teenage boy, air quality is always on my mind. In our house, the main particulate we measure is Axe Body Spray. The rest of you may have air quality matters on your mind because Earth Day is approaching. Even if you don’t, I’ve got some Earth Day-type news to share.

First, there is new information about our air quality. Some of you noticed that the Journal-World’s USA Today section recently ran an article detailing the communities with the worst air quality in America. The American Lung Association puts together the annual report based on air quality readings from monitoring stations across the country.

To the chagrin of some, Lawrence doesn’t have an official air quality monitoring station, even though we do have a coal-fired power plant right outside the city limits. So, Douglas County was not one of the counties ranked by the American Lung Association report.

The Westar Energy Plant north of Lawrence is pictured in this file photo from 2007.

The Westar Energy Plant north of Lawrence is pictured in this file photo from 2007.

But a handful of Kansas counties were ranked. I believe the one we ought to pay attention to the most is Leavenworth County. Since Douglas County doesn’t have a station, we previously have reported that the state uses Leavenworth County as a proxy to measure Douglas County’s air quality. The few times that the state has measured Lawrence’s air quality, it has been similar to that of Leavenworth County, is my understanding. If that is still the case, Lawrence’s air quality is just average, at best. Leavenworth County received a C grade as part of the report, and it experienced four orange days in the last year. An orange day is when air quality is deemed to be unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as children, the elderly and people with heart or lung diseases. The county didn’t have any red or purple days, which are days when the air quality is dangerous to even larger groups of people. No county in Kansas registered any of the red or purple days.

Here is a look at the other Kansas counties or KC metro area counties that received a ranking:

— Johnson County: A grade, with no orange, red or purple days.

— Sedgwick County: D grade, with eight orange days and no red or purple days

— Shawnee County: B grade, with one orange day and no red or purple days

— Sumner County: C grade, with five orange days and no red or purple days

— Trego County: A grade, with no orange, red or purple days

— Wyandotte County: B grade with one orange day, and no red or purple days

— Clay County, Mo.: F grade with 13 orange days, and no red or purple days

— Cass County, Mo.: A grade with no orange, red or purple days

The takeaway from that list is that Clay County — which has some of the big industry in Kansas City, including the Ford Motor plant — has some struggles with air pollution. Johnson County soccer parents, however, evidently have figured out how to run their SUVs on nonpolluting Starbucks coffee, because it ranks high both statewide and nationally.

I chatted briefly with an air quality official with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. He told me there aren’t any plans to add an air monitoring station in Douglas County. The department does generally look at Leavenworth County to get an estimate of what air quality levels are in Douglas County.

This file photo from July 2015 shows a westward look across Lawrence, including the University of Kansas on Mount Oread, at the center-left, and Ninth Street stretching toward downtown Lawrence, at center-right.

This file photo from July 2015 shows a westward look across Lawrence, including the University of Kansas on Mount Oread, at the center-left, and Ninth Street stretching toward downtown Lawrence, at center-right. by Nick Krug

For a short period of time last decade, there was a monitoring station at the Lawrence Municipal Airport. The state placed the station there amid concern that air quality was declining in Douglas County and that Lawrence may need to be added to a special air quality district that encompasses Kansas City. If that had happened, local gasoline stations likely would have been required to sell a different formulation of fuel that would have increased costs. There were concerns that the financial impact to the county would have been $10 million or more due to the fuel change and other regulations that would have been required.

However, in 2007 we reported that the state removed the air monitoring station at the airport and determined that Douglas County air quality levels were fine. Lawrence was no longer at risk of being placed in the Kansas City district. There was some talk at the time of the county spending perhaps $100,000 to install its own air monitoring system to ensure that we had good data, but that never happened.

Doug Watson, environment program supervisor with KDHE, told me Lawrence isn’t at great risk of being added into the Kansas City district. That’s mainly because air quality levels have been improving in the Kansas City area.

As for the need for an local air monitoring station, that would be nice, but may not play a great role in keeping Lawrence out of the Kansas City district in the future. That’s because federal regulators don’t necessarily believe that Lawrence has polluted air that is drifting over to Kansas City. Instead, if Lawrence is contributing to Kansas City’s air quality problems it would be because of the high number of commuters from Lawrence into Kansas City each day.

Watson warned that if Kansas City’s numbers do reverse course and start to deteriorate, Lawrence could be back into the conversation because of those commuter numbers.

“We could have a couple of horrible, dry, stagnant summers and we would be back to talking about this again,” Watson said.

• Speaking of the state, a new report ranks Kansas low in terms of being a “green state.” The financial website WalletHub put together a report that looked at a variety of statistics related to energy efficiency, recycling, pollution and other such matters. Kansas ranked as the ninth least green state in the country.

In other words, Kansas ranked No. 42 on the list.

The report did provide some specifics for the Sunflower State. Here’s a look at Kansas’ rank in various categories:

— 19th in water quality

— 21st in gasoline consumption per capita

— 22nd in air quality

— 36th in energy consumption per capita

— 44th in nitrous-oxide emissions per capita

— 47th in number of LEED-certified buildings per capita

— 47th in energy-efficiency score

The report also has a category it calls “Climate-Change contributions rank,” which is a conglomeration of data about energy usage and certain types of emissions data. Kansas ranks seventh worst on that category.

In terms of some states in the region and how they rank overall, here’s a look:

— Colorado: No. 20 overall and No. 29 on Climate Change

— Missouri: No. 30 overall and No. 24 on Climate Change

— Iowa: No. 38 overall and No. 43 on Climate Change

— Kansas: No. 42 overall and No. 44 on Climate Change

— Nebraska: No. 44 overall and No. 47 on Climate Change

— Oklahoma: No. 46 overall and No. 48 on Climate Change


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