USA — American cattle producers from Texas to Tennessee ship their herds each summer to the Flint Hills region of Kansas, where the animals bulk up on grass before they’re dispatched to feedlots and then slaughtered.
Ranchers help prime the sprawling pastures by torching them to burn out prairie brush, clearing the way for stands of big bluestem and other grasses that are cheap cattle feed.
But the springtime fires also send up smoke that’s tipping heartland cities into violations of clean-air regulations, the federal government says.
Now the Environmental Protection Agency is threatening to restrain the Kansas range fires if ranchers’ don’t do so voluntarily, perhaps by burning only when wind doesn’t blow the smoke over cities. The EPA’s crackdown is kicking up a political storm in cattle countrya potential harbinger of high-stakes fights elsewhere as the agency prepares this summer to announce tougher clean-air standards nationwide.
On one side of the Kansas conflict are the EPA and some environmental groups, which say the unabated ranch fires present a public-health threat. On the other side are Kansas ranchers, city officials and state environmental regulators, who fear an EPA clean-air campaign could cost businesses and residents big money.
The Flint Hills fight marks a new front in America’s war on smog. For decades, the government’s clean-air campaign has focused on major cities such as Los Angeles and Houston. But the tighter rules expected from the EPA could prod more cities to push cleaner-burning gasoline, car-emission inspections and less-polluting chemicals in factories.
Various Kansas cities have violated clean-air limits on a handful of days in the past few Aprils, around when the range fires are set. Wichita, Kan., exceeded clean-air limits on two days this April. If, under the upcoming EPA rules, the daily violations grow frequent enough to push Wichita into a legal status known as “non-attainment” of the standards, the city would have to mandate clean-up steps likely to cost local businesses and residents more than $10 million annually, Wichita officials estimate.
To some Republicans on Capitol Hill, the Kansas range-fire fight is the latest evidence the EPA regulates business too aggressively. “This is one more issue in which Kansans shake their heads” at an EPA that is constantly putting in standards that make it hard for people to be in business, said Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who sponsored a bill that would require the EPA to exclude Flint Hills range-fire pollution spikes when it calculates whether an area is breaking federal clean-air standards and needs to take corrective action. With the bill’s fate uncertain, ranchers and Kansas officials also plan a petition to the EPA to accomplish much the same goal.
EPA officials said they’ve been working with ranchers, city and state officials and environmental advocates on ways ranchers could continue to burn their fields while minimizing the air-pollution threats to people. Among them: online meteorological models that tell ranchers when the weather’s right to burn their fields without sending smoke over Kansas’ cities.
But if the voluntary measures don’t work, the EPA will consider mandating restrictions on the fires, said Karl Brooks, the agency’s administrator for the region including Kansas. “There are millions of people downwind from these burns,” he said. “We do have a responsibility to maintain air quality so that it’s health for people to work and live.”
Some environmentalists want the EPA to impose mandatory restrictions. Craig Volland, a leader of the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, a national environmental group, said ranchers need to burn their fields only every three years, not every spring.
Burning the Flint Hills annually to maximize grass and cattle growth is “a business decision,” he said. “And we don’t think that should have priority over our health.”
The blazes, typically set in April, are crucial to the economics of the cattle business. Without the fires, grass growth in the Flint Hills would be stuntedso much that the average steer would gain about 32 fewer pounds during the three to five months it’s grazing on the prairie, said Clenton Owensby, a Kansas State University professor of range management.
At current prices, that means the fires boost by an average of about $40 the price ranchers can charge per head, Mr. Owensby said. And the fires are inexpensive, requiring little more than a torch and a crew of monitors to ensure they don’t spread out of control.
Flint Hills ranchers have set the fires for generations. Residents of cities such as Wichita have grown used to thick blankets of smoke obscuring their skies on the handful of days each spring when the burning is most intense, said Kay Johnson, manager of environmental initiatives for the planning department run jointly by Wichita and surrounding Sedgwick County.
Rancher Mike Collinge grazes cattle on 21,000 acres in Greenwood County, Kan., and he lights fires on the land before the start of the season. “There’s no question” smoke from Flint Hills ranch fires is contributing to air pollution around Kansas, he said “People in Wichita and Kansas City, they’ll complain a little. So will my wife,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s causing huge air-quality problems.”
The smoke has triggered federal clean-air violations in the past few years in metropolitan areas such as Wichita, Kansas City, and Topeka. Pollution from cars, trucks and factories is increasingly a problem, especially on hot days.
Meanwhile, the EPA gradually has been toughening its air-pollution rules, and a recent drought has made this year’s fires particularly intense. Now, a daily spike in smoke from the Flint Hills can push the cities’ air beyond the agency’s legal limit.