eKC feature
August 10, 2007


Fighting dirty air —
Air Quality Forum grapples with new EPA standards
by Tom Bogdon

That ugly and noxious smog Greater Kansas City has experienced this summer — and the chemical compounds and environmental factors that cause it — will be the focus of an Aug. 14 meeting of the Mid-America Regional Council’s Air Quality Forum.

Specifically, the Air Quality Forum, a 31-member body of elected officials and representatives of other community stakeholders, will consider whether to take a position on revisions of the nation’s air quality standards for ground-level ozone as proposed June 21 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA proposal recommends an ozone standard within a range of 0.070 to 0.075 parts per million (ppm). EPA also is taking comments on alternative standards within a range from 0.060 up to the level of the current 8-hour ozone standard, which is 0.08 ppm.

Ground-level ozone is not emitted directly into the air, but is created through a reaction of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compound emissions in the presence of sunlight. Emissions from industrial facilities, electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, diesel trucks and buses, gasoline vapors and chemical solvents are the major man-made sources of these ozone precursors.

Ozone, the primary ingredient of smog, can harm people’s lungs and EPA is particularly concerned about individuals with asthma or other lung diseases, as well as those who spend a lot of time outside, such as children. Ozone exposure can aggravate asthma, resulting in increased medication use and emergency room visits, and it can increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.

“Advances in science are leading to cleaner skies and healthier living,” said EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson in announcing the proposed new standards. “America’s science is progressing and our air quality is improving. By strengthening the ozone standard, EPA is keeping our clean air momentum moving into the future.”

EPA also is proposing to revise the “secondary” standard for ozone to improve protection for plants, trees and crops during the growing season. The secondary standard is based on scientific evidence indicating that exposure to even low levels of ozone can damage vegetation. EPA is proposing two alternatives for this standard: a standard that would be identical to the “primary” standard to protect public health; and a cumulative standard aimed at protecting vegetation during the growing season.

EPA estimates the health benefits of the proposed standard in the billions of dollars, but does not consider costs in setting ozone standards. The agency has set a 90-day period for public comments.

“EPA is currently reviewing the more than 60,000 written comments and thousands of pages of technical and scientific documentation received so far during the public comment period,” an EPA spokeswoman told eKC online. “Administrator Johnson will make his final determination on the request by the end of the year.”

Consideration of making an official comment to EPA on behalf of MARC, the bi-state region’s planning agency and council of governments, will be on the agenda of the Air Quality Forum at its monthly meeting, 10 a.m. to noon, on Aug. 14. The meeting will be held in the conference room of the MARC office at 600 Broadway and is open to the public.

A view of KCK from downtown Kansas City, MO on Aug. 2, 2007 at 8:30am.
(photo by Ron Johnson)

The Air Quality Forum heard presentations by the MARC staff and EPA representatives at its July meeting, but there will probably not be a draft letter to EPA to consider at the Aug. 14 meeting, said James Joerke, MARC air quality program manager.

“If we were to take a position, it would be by sending comments to the EPA on the proposed rule,” said Ed Peterson, a Johnson County commissioner and former Fairway mayor who is co-chair of the Air Quality Forum.

“The new standard is one that will be very difficult for the Kansas City area to achieve, but if it become the standard, we’ll do everything we can to reach air quality compliance,” added Peterson, who said he had not decided yet how he would vote on the issue.

Kathryn Dusenbery, Parkville mayor and the other Air Quality Forum co-chair, said, “I think we really need to meet next Tuesday and decide our position as a group because that committee represents our metro area and we need to work on this regionally. It’s a regional problem.”

Dusenbery noted that setting an ozone level is very complex because emissions from coal-fired electric generating plants in Kansas can be carried by prevailing winds across the state line into Missouri. Dusenbery also pointed out that diesel emissions from the proposed BNSF Railway inter modal facility in Gardener in Johnson County, KS need to be regulated.

“They need to look at the emissions standards for inter modal facilities in Texas and California for that facility in Johnson County,” Dusenbery said. “Why should we accept anything less?

“This is a pretty action-oriented board,” added Dusenbery. “There will be a lot of input, a lot of discussion.”

Jamie Green, director of government relations and policy for the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City and an Air Quality Forum member, said: “It’s still early as far as the 90-day comment period is concerned and when I talked to James Joerke today he said they were not close to drafting a letter.”

Green said the Chamber is interested in the proposed ground level ozone regulations and is monitoring the situation, and will provide its input. Green said before he could take a position on the issue it would have to be cleared by the Chamber’s board.

Kevin Kennedy, an environmental scientist who is manager of the environmental health program at Children’s Mercy Hospital and a member of the Air Quality Forum, said: “There’s sufficient public health research to show this (the tighter EPA standard) would be beneficial to public health. There’s no question about that.

“Ground level ozone effects all people,” Kennedy said. “It’s poisonous gas. Ozone way up in the atmosphere, at 100,000 feet, helps protects the earth from ultraviolet light. But at ground level, it can be a real public health problem. We’re fortunate that Kansas City has lower levels than many communities. But with the new proposal from EPA, we would exceed the standard.

“Fortunately, because of organizations like MARC, we have an air action plan,” Kennedy continued. “That’s the balancing act, health benefits versus economic health. Certainly, I will advocate for anything that benefits public health. So I will support lowering of the (ground level ozone) standards.

“It’s going to benefit children, the elderly — but really it will benefit all people, certainly people with asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease),” Kennedy said.

Michael Manning, air quality program manager for the Kansas City, Missouri Health Department and a member of the Air Quality Forum, issued the following statement in response to an inquiry from eKC online, which, Manning said, reflects the position of the Health Department, whose director is Rex Archer MD, and his own position on the proposed EPA standard:

“These new standards are a step in the right direction,” the Health Department statement says. “They are good short-term goals, though they may be difficult to achieve. The newly proposed level is a range of .070 to .075 ppm; there is some limited research that levels as low .060 ppm may cause adverse health effects. Even if the new standard is adopted, we need to remember that at least 20 percent of the population may still have adverse health effects to ozone, and evidence suggests that we may need to look at lowering it even further.”

The proposed new EPA standard comes at about the same time as the Kansas City region slipped into new violations of existing EPA air quality standards.

On Aug. 2, MARC issued a news release that admitted two more air quality monitors in Liberty and Trimble, in the Northland, registered readings that would put the three-year average of readings from those two locations above the EPA limit. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources Air Pollution Control Program is quality-assuring the data before the violation can be confirmed.

In mid-June, the first of eight ozone monitors in the Kansas City region violated the ozone standards. It takes only one monitor violation for EPA to consider the whole region to be in violation of the standard. At the end of this year, EPA has the option of letting metropolitan Kansas City keep its “attainment” or clean air status, or designating the region a “nonattainment” area in response to the violations. EPA has not yet indicated which option it prefers.

“The ozone violations that Kansas City have experienced leave no doubt that area residents are breathing unhealthy air,” said Joerke, MARC’s air quality program manager. “Fortunately, with the help of many community stakeholders we have developed solid regulatory and voluntary plans for making our air cleaner.”

The states of Kansas and Missouri have begun the process of implementing contingency plans to further reduce emissions. The plans include requiring new pollution controls on several area power plants and establishing new regulations to reduce idling by commercial, heavy-duty diesel engines. The region also continues to implement the Clean Air Action Plan, a collection of voluntary strategies to reduce ozone-forming emissions from a variety of stationary and mobile sources. The Clean Air Action Plan received a national Clean Air Excellence Award from EPA in 2006.

Among long-term steps in the Action Plan are the following:

Green Building — An approach to site development and building design and construction that aims to minimize environmental impacts. Green-building methods enhance and protect ecosystems and biodiversity, improve air and water quality, reduce solid waste and conserve energy and natural resources. Economic benefits include reduced operating costs, enhanced asset value and profits, improved employee productivity and satisfaction, and optimized life-cycle economic performance. Green building provides health and community benefits by improving air, thermal and acoustic environments; enhancing occupant comfort and health; minimizing strain on local infrastructure; and contributing to overall quality of life.

Increase proximity between housing, jobs and transit service — Employing Smart Growth development principles, communities can develop in ways that facilitate more mixed-use development, in turn creating more opportunities for residents to live closer to where they work, and to have a greater number of options for traveling around the community.

Tom Bogdon can be contacted at tjbogdon@yahoo.com.


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