news feature
August 17, 2007




A Q & A with MARC’s
air quality expert James Joerke

by Tom Bogdon

Air quality is something most of us take for granted until we have difficulty breathing or when the air becomes noticeably foul because of pollution. But for James Joerke, air quality program manager for the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), maintaining breathable air is a matter of daily concern.

Joerke, MARC’s lead staff person on regional air quality issues, coordinates MARC’s clean air efforts with federal and state agencies, and area counties and cities. For example, when regional air pollution reaches dangerous levels, Joerke issues orange or red alerts. He also coordinates activities of the Air Quality Forum, a 31-member group of elected officials and other stakeholders who advise MARC on air quality issues.

Joerke’s credentials for his job include a master’s degree in public affairs from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs with a concentration in environmental policy and natural resources management.

With public concern about the environment peaking as a result of dire warnings from scientists about global warming and other results of environmental degradation, there is no shortage of issues for MARC, its Air Quality Forum and Joerke to grapple with. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently recommended tighter standards for ground-level ozone pollution enforcement. (See “Fighting dirty air — Air Quality Forum grapples with new EPA standards,” Aug. 10, Ground-level ozone, which results in harmful and potentially deadly smog, is a particular problem in the Kansas City area.

James Joerke, MARC’s lead staff person on
regional air quality issues. (photo courtesy MARC)

At its Aug. 14 meeting, the Air Quality Forum discussed the EPA’s new proposed standards and agreed to have Joerke and the MARC staff draft a letter to EPA outlining the Greater Kansas City response to the tighter ozone standards. This summer Greater Kansas City violated the existing ozone standards, and clearly will have to struggle to meet more stringent limits.

In this Q & A interview (via email) with eKC online, Joerke explains the Air Quality Forum’s upcoming response to the pending new EPA ozone limits and discusses other current air quality issues, including how a region-wide light rail system could be one step we could take to help clean up Greater Kansas City’s air.

Q. Could you explain the Air Quality Forum's decisions at its Aug. 14 meeting regarding the proposed EPA ground level ozone limits, and touch on what factors the Air Quality Forum considered in reaching its decisions?

A. The Air Quality Forum expressed support for revising the ozone standard to better protect public health. EPA has stated unequivocally that the current standard is not sufficiently protective of public health.

Q. What are the next steps in finalizing the Air Quality Forum's position on the proposed new standards and communicating these to the EPA?

A. MARC staff will draft a comment letter that will be reviewed by the Air Quality Forum at its September meeting. Forum members will be asked to approve a final draft of the letter to send to EPA prior to the Oct. 9 comment deadline.

Q. I believe one facet of the Air Quality Forum's position is that local communities will need help from the federal government in meeting new tighter standards for air quality. Specifically, what kinds of resources will be needed?

A. States and regions across the U.S. will need additional funding to support the development of new pollution control plans. Air quality officials will need to conduct rigorous technical analyses to determine which strategies can provide the highest level of emissions reductions in the most cost-effective way. Funds will also be needed to support a public involvement process to ensure that there is community consensus about which emissions reduction strategies should be adopted.

Q. Do you perceive a growing level of public interest in and concern about unhealthful air? Do you think the related issue of greenhouse gases and global warming has heightened public concern?

A. Yes - growing concern about global warming seems to have triggered an increased level of public awareness about environmental issues generally. People are gaining a better understanding of the impact that human activity has on the environment. Surveys that Mid-America Regional Council conducts annually show that 70 percent of area residents are very or somewhat concerned about the health consequences of air pollution.

Q. A representative of MARC's Transportation Planning program made a presentation at the Air Quality Forum meeting. If Greater Kansas City committed to a region-wide light rail system, what long-range effect could that have on ground-level ozone levels?

A. In places where light rail has been implemented, it has had the effect of taking cars off the road and promoting more efficient development patterns. Areas near rail stations tend to be more densely developed because many people enjoy the convenience of living close to a station, and because this kind of development is more profitable for the developers. One-third of the emissions that contribute to ground-level ozone locally come from cars and trucks, so in the long term, it is essential that we find a way to reduce emissions from mobile sources.

Q. Do you observe that a community's air quality compliance or non-compliance can be a factor in the decisions of some companies to invest in or relocate to that community?

A. Yes. It is my understanding that American Airlines and Harley-Davidson chose to locate major facilities here in the 1990s at least in part because the region met federal air quality standards.

Q. Considering this summer's violations of EPA's current ground-level ozone standards, how would you summarize the steps our region will have to take to reach compliance with current standards? For example, reduced idling for diesel trucks and buses, and power-plant pollution controls.

A. New controls on a handful of area power plants and idling restrictions for heavy-duty diesel are the only major new controls that will be implemented over the next couple of years. However, if violations persist, the region will need to consider additional controls on a variety of stationary and mobile sources.

Tom Bogdon can be contacted at


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