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The streets of the Orchard Breeze neighborhood are where Dan Warren grew up.
They’re where he rode his bike growing up. Where he tossed the morning news into driveways on his paper route.
Warren, 67, still lives on the streets of the west Wichita neighborhood. But instead of loving those streets, he fears them — and he fears for the children now growing up on them.
“A little boy told me the street hurts me,” Warren said.
Warren lives on an unpaved street in Wichita, one of about 900 in the city. On high-traffic days, the street can turn hazy with dust, Warren said. While the streets were always unpaved, Warren said the dust got much worse after the city of Wichita poured a limestone substance on its unpaved streets in the 1990s.
About 84 miles of roads in Wichita are unpaved, according to an analysis of data The Wichita Beacon obtained through a Kansas Open Records Act request. And there are no plans to pave them. The city requires property owners on unpaved streets in established neighborhoods to pay for paving.
It’s an issue City Council member Jeff Blubaugh has been contending with during his nine years on the council. He represents District 4, which has about 28 miles of unpaved roads. That’s second only to the 34 miles of unpaved roads in District 6, where Warren lives.
“We really don’t have any long-term plan to pave these 100 miles of streets, a lot of them located south of Kellogg,” Blubaugh said at an October City Council meeting. “How do we ever change the trend on this?”
Both Blubaugh and Mayor Brandon Whipple signaled they’d like to see a resurgence of the discussion around a solution for the city’s unpaved streets. Whipple said that it’s likely many of the unpaved streets are in low-income neighborhoods.
“I know properties on dirt roads in the core of Wichita are likely worth less, and they’re more of a health hazard — breathing in the dust with the air quality,” Whipple said at the council meeting. “It’s an equity issue.”
But it’s a battle Warren has been fighting for over 20 years — and he has yet to see progress.
Decades of dust
Sunny photos of well-kept single-family homes are plastered on the cover of the 1999 vision plan for Orchard Breeze. The documents, prepared with input from residents of the west Wichita enclave, laid out a plan for the neighborhood’s future.
Dusty, unpaved roads were not a part of that vision — and getting rid of them is mentioned several times throughout the booklet.
In the 1990s, the city of Wichita put AB-3 — crushed limestone — on unpaved streets throughout Wichita. The city received enough complaints about the dust caused by the crushed limestone that it stopped using it in 1998.
“I worked downtown at that time,” Warren said. “When I drove home, it looked like a bomb went off in my neighborhood.”
The city switched to crushed concrete, asphalt and road gravel after 1998.
But the dust continued, Warren said. He kept complaining to the city — particularly after he saw schoolchildren and their parents walking through the dust near an elementary school by his home.
In 2014, the city began putting down magnesium chloride, a chemical meant to control dust, on unpaved streets within a block of schools. This program came about after citizens requested a policy discussion with the City Council about the dust, city spokesperson Megan Lovely wrote in an email to The Beacon.
The discussion also produced a serious look at how much it would cost to pave the streets. A 2015 memo from the city’s Public Works & Utilities Department estimated the total at $94.6 million to pave all unpaved residential streets to the city’s minimum paving standard. Treating all the streets with chemical dust mitigation would cost $10.7 million, according to the memo. These cost estimates are currently being updated, Lovely added.
Current dust mitigation efforts are budgeted for $78,000 a year.
“It is cost prohibitive to treat every lane mile of unpaved street,” Lovely wrote.
‘Mud lung,’ quartz particles and road dust
Danetta Judd endured the dusty streets of Orchard Breeze as a postal carrier for the neighborhood in the late 2000s.
A few years after she started the route, Judd said she developed a cough she just couldn’t shake — ”mud lung,” her fellow carriers teased.
But Judd wasn’t laughing when she went to her doctor, who she said told her that air was only filling the top part of her lungs.
“I bid off the route and got one that had all paved roads, and my cough slowly went away,” Judd said. “It was part of the reason I did not want that route anymore.”
Judd’s concern about the impact of the dust on her health is not unfounded. Road dust has been associated with many health issues, primarily related to the amount of exposure and type of particulate matter, wrote Chloe Steinshouer, a pulmonologist with Pulmonary and Sleep Consultants of Kansas, in an email to The Wichita Beacon.
Limestone often contains some quartz particles, which can be irritating to humans when ground up, said Michael Kleinman, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies the health effects of air pollution.
“As these particles come in, they deposit all along the airways. And they cause irritation and inflammation,” Kleinman said. “And in people who have asthma, this can trigger an asthamatic reaction.”
Many material safety sheets contain warnings about the health impacts of limestone when it is ground up as dust. Even though the product was put on the street over two decades ago, Kleinman said it’s “very likely” that the material can remain for years. In 2017, the roadway base on Warren’s street was still described as AB-3 in a report by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
“The more traffic that goes over it, the more the AB-3 is going to grind down to smaller particles and be released also, as resuspended material,” Kleinman said.
Warren remains concerned that the data KDHE used to model the air quality does not accurately reflect the conditions on the ground.
Fugitive dust slips through the regulatory cracks
Dust coming from roads — also known as fugitive dust — is not regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency or KDHE, according to KDHE spokesperson Matthew Lara.
“Most issues regarding road dust are usually handled by local agencies or the state environmental agency,” David Bryan, press officer for EPA Region 7, wrote in an email to The Beacon. Region 7 includes Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska.
The city of Wichita does not regulate dust around roads, but does request that construction sites cover or spray dirt and gravel with water to control dust. A spokesperson for Sedgwick County wrote that air quality issues are the responsibility of the KDHE, not the Sedgwick County Health Department.
The EPA does require that cities meet air quality standards for particulate matter, like dust. The KDHE checks if Wichita is meeting these regulations through air monitors. There is one particulate matter monitor in Wichita located near 9th street and Interstate 135, according to the EPA’s website.
But unpaved roads are generally an intermittent source of emissions localized in a small area, Bryan wrote. That makes it difficult to regulate as a source of pollution, Kleinman said, because the federal air quality standard is based on an average over 24 hours.
“They don’t have a short term standard for it,” Kleinman said. “So you could have 10 times more than the federal regulation for a one hour period, but when you average that out for 24 hours, it looks low.”
Lovely added that the city relies on KDHE “to investigate and respond to the health impacts of air quality.”
What’s fair for the future?
Right now, the city relies on property owners to pay up if they want their street paved — an expensive ask. One street paving petition in 2015 cost $210,000, which was split between 10 property owners.
Warren said the cost of paving the street he lives on in Orchard Breeze was a deterrent.
“I could’ve afforded to pay for my street, my portion,” Warren said. “But I’m not gonna hate my neighbors who can’t.”
Paving all 84 miles of streets would cost the city a massive chunk of change, too. That’s why Blubaugh wants to get creative about paying for it.
“I would like to see some kind of TIF for the small guy,” Blubaugh said.
Tax-increment financing, or TIF, is an economic development incentive that diverts a portion of a property owner’s taxes to help pay for development in the area, like streets.
“We do TIFs for a lot of big businesses throughout the city,” Blubaugh said. “If these are lower-income areas, why can’t we use their property tax money to help pave their streets?”
Warren, meanwhile, would like to see a portion of the dollars used for pavement preservation go toward paving streets.
The city allocated about $11.5 million in 2022 to maintain paved streets. Each City Council district receives a portion of the annual funds budgeted for street maintenance based on the percentage of paved roads in the district.
“What do I want the city to do?” Warren said. “Admit that the street can be a health hazard, just like the mayor said. Admit that the majority of them are in poor neighborhoods and that people are going to need help to get out of the problem.”
“Maybe just spend a few million on paving some streets in some neighborhoods. Is that really too much to ask, to preserve health instead of pavement?”