Monday Morning Thoughts: Changes to Trains Could Affect Nishi Assessment

When Thomas Cahill laid out his concerns about Nishi in a recent op-ed in the local paper, he cited among other things new data showing that diesel from trains “is six times more toxic than diesel from trucks, or data on ultra-fine metals from brake debris connected to a 35-percent increase in fatal heart attacks in Bakersfield.”

While we remain skeptical of these claims, particularly in light of changes to the project that would make Nishi all rental and would therefore shorten the residency stay of the tenants on the property, new state regulations may also mitigate some of Dr. Cahill’s concerns.

The Sacramento Bee rolled out a story Sunday which reported, “The cleanest and fastest diesel locomotives in the country began rolling on rails in Sacramento and through California last week, but unfortunately for railroaders, the new machines aren’t allowed to travel anywhere near their 125-mph top speed.”

The Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin passenger rail services reportedly each put one of the new “Charger” diesel-electric locomotives into full service last week, “calling it a major step toward making California train travel cleaner, quieter and faster.”

The Charger locomotives, which, according to the Bee, cost nearly $7 million apiece, are “are among the first locomotives nationally that meet federal 2015 emissions requirements, called Tier IV
standards. The new limits cut particulate matter emissions by nearly 90 percent compared to many older locomotives built before 2000, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.”

Capitol Corridor rail service head David Kutrosky touted them “as the next step in making rail travel more relevant.”

“They are cleaner, and more reliable,” he said. “They have faster acceleration, higher horsepower and improved braking.”

The Bee further reports, “Another major California passenger service, Metrolink in Los Angeles, launched a similar all-diesel locomotive last week.”

The Bee continues, “Statewide, officials plan to integrate more of the locomotives into their fleet of Amtrak-operated trains over time, part of a push to dramatically increase ridership through 2040. A draft 2018 State Rail Plan published this month set a goal of upping passenger rail travel from 0.34 percent of all trips in the state to nearly 7 percent in the next two decades. That involves investing as much as $85 billion in upgrades in that time period.”

If that is the case, some of the concerns raised by Dr. Cahill could be mitigated simply by the integration of cleaner diesel-locomotives occupying the tracks.

What remains unclear is how high an exposure rate people who live next to Nishi actually receive.

Dr. Cahill in his piece asks that “Ascent Environmental include ultra-fine metal measurements as part of its draft EIR addendum.” He says “to pull this off in this rushed time frame, everybody has to be on board.”

He suggests, “The UC Davis DELTA Group (Detection and Evaluation of the Long-Range Transport of Aerosols) could provide two calibrated continuous nine-stage DRUM samplers, EPA-approved for our study in Detroit, including an ultrafine stage, for a five-week study, mid-December to late January.

“The UCD DELTA Group and my campus colleagues would provide Ascent with personnel trained in use of these samplers. The developer could provide small equipment shelters (we can provide a design) and power (circa 1 kw) to two sites, one in the middle next to the proposed housing, and the other toward the east end of the development.”

He then suggests, “The Davis City Council could postpone the vote until at least the fall ballot, ideally later, to allow Ascent to draft the research report and a research article suitable for publication in a major peer-reviewed journal. This is the best way I can see to avoid another divisive environmental conflict.”

Others, however, believe that by employing the mitigation techniques recommended by Dr. Cahill and eliminating long-term for-sale housing, the risks of health impacts would be greatly reduced.

—David M. Greenwald reporting



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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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38 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts: Changes to Trains Could Affect Nishi Assessment”

  1. Todd Edelman

    Also by 2040-45 the Capitol Corridor system could be fully-electrified, with passenger trains only on this route. I sort of imagine that the I-80 will still be noisy but not much else by then.

    That still leaves 20 years to stuff PM 2.5 deep into the lungs of UC Davis students.

  2. Roberta Millstein

    And do you plan on explicitly retracting your claim that Dr. Cahill has “moved the goalposts” on testing, given the evidence that I provided on your earlier post on Nishi?  Or do you plan to go along and pretend that you never made that false accusation?

  3. Ron

    Day 3?, regarding the Vanguard’s desperate attempt to downplay the latest warnings from Dr. Cahill.

    Give it up – there’s no way to avoid it, at this point. It’s irresponsible to proceed without addressing the issue.

    1. David Greenwald

      With all that said, I think that was an important tidbit of information to file away as we evaluate this project and worthy of a Monday Morning Thought Column.

  4. Howard P

    Ron’s right David… “give it up”… pointless to point out facts to zealots, the inane, or the insane.

    A famous quote… “My mind is already made up, don’t bother me with facts!”, to which I would append, “… unless of course, if I get to choose who, how, and over how long I get to choose facts from by X studies over X years that might bolster my dearly held conclusions and/or undermining those who have reached different conclusions.”

    Yet if there is a “toxic soup” (BS) it is now a “toxic broth”.

    The AQ issue is way low down in my list of concerns… 100th out of 50…

    Has YSAQD weighed in?

  5. Todd Edelman

    In relation to 80 to be fair etc. shouldn’t a Lungscore be available for all of Davis? This would be present in real estate marketing and more, similar to ratings for walkability, schools, crime and so on. If the City (or County) powers it itself, there’d be wonderful and glowing opining about our openness and willingness to confront our Eisenhowerian Beast at its core, rather than just at effect level. It would ideally not only be inspired by the extremely narrow zeitgeist that is the peer-superreviewed objective analysis of risk level at Nishi, but would take into account… ya know… feelings about how one’s risk increases the longer one is at UC Davis and happens to live in this triangular armpit of industrialism, automobilism and practically-genetic denial.

      1. Alan Miller

        I thought we were in the “Delta of Venus”.

        Obtuse enough not to get the hammer.  Well done.

        The business so named is open for brunch on weekends again, BTW.

  6. Richard McCann

    After reading Dr. Cahill’s opinion piece in the Enterprise, I saw at least two problems in the proposed experimental design and an obvious point of bias. Cahill proposed only testing at the Nishi site, yet he doesn’t propose to conduct baseline testing throughout Davis. How would we know what the incremental risk might be at the site? Or is Cahill that we propose that we abandon all of Davis? (I understand that the emissions from highways and arterials extend 1500 feet or farther, and most housing is within that range.) Second, he makes no proposals to adjust for differences in demographics and residencies. As I pointed out in an earlier comment, the prevailing wind during the academic year when students would reside at Nishi is from the north, whereas workers at a research park would be there year round, particularly during the worst air quality episodes during the summer.

    And finally, Dr. Cahill introduces his own personal stake in a new study–more money. He proposes that he and his firm be hired to conduct more testing. This personal interest obliterates any of his professional disinterest. It’s hard to believe any researcher who says the answer is in his personal enrichment.

    1. Alan Miller

      Ah, but R.McC., you forget:

      He’s like Mr. Air-Qual (AQ Guy!)
      We’re talking Lord God King Air-Qaul (AQ Guy!)
      I am SO SURE
      It’s like BARF ME OUT…
      Gag me with a spoon

      [moderator] please don’t post this kind of stuff.

    2. Roberta Millstein

      Richard, I am not seeing the logic behind what you say.  To your first point, suppose that it turned out that we’ve made mistakes in the past and shouldn’t have built in various locations in Davis.  Would that mean that, because we have unwittingly made mistakes in the past, we should continue to make them in the future?  That makes no sense to me.  That being said, Dr. Cahill has said very specifically why the characteristics of this site are particularly problematic, given its proximity to a place where the freeway is elevated, sandwiched between the train tracks and the freeway, with stagnant air inversions during some months.  To your second point, if you read the EIR Dr. Cahill explains why it is the winter months that are most problematic, not the summer months (again, inversion).  I would add to that that many students — increasingly many students, I think — do in fact take classes in the summer.

      In the last round (Nishi 1.0), Dr. Cahill proposed to take no salary for the study.  I would be highly surprised if he has rescinded that offer.

      1. Richard McCann

        Roberta, his claim that the site is unique is at issue. Without the more complete testing, it is an unsubstantiated assertion. He can make a judgement before testing, but if he is truly interested in answering the question scientifically, then he needs to have a valid test protocol. His proposal currently fails in this regard.

        We have to tolerate some level of risk all the time–it is impossible to avoid all risks. So we live near environmental hazards weighing those risks. This is a question of measuring relative risks. Is living at Nishi worse than living at other sites in Davis for students? Understand that those students will live in disperse housing in Davis in alternative to Nishi. What’s the risks at those other potential housing locations? The experimental design must consider that alternative baseline, otherwise if fails scientifically.

        What Dr. Cahill says in the EIR appears inconsistent with the air quality data. The fact is that inversions in  Davis have decreased dramatically over the last two decades. (Noticed any tule fog lately? Neither have I for at least a decade, but it was common for weeks prior to the mid-90s.)

        And while some students take summer classes, they are still represent a much smaller group than the number of workers who would be on site during the summer. And instead of assuming that the populations of either alternative would be the same, a proper scientific study would research this issue and make the necessary adjustments. Again, Dr. Cahill’s proposal and premature conclusions fail to consider this step.

        BTW, Dr. Cahill makes money off the billings of his staff. Of course, he can offer to take no salary. We shouldn’t let his motives go unexamined. We certainly don’t do that when we’re looking at Trump Administration appointees and supporters. We should be evenhanded.

        1. Don Shor

          The fact is that inversions in Davis have decreased dramatically over the last two decades. (Noticed any tule fog lately? Neither have I for at least a decade, but it was common for weeks prior to the mid-90s.)

          The number of winter fog events in the Valley have been measured to have decreased more than 40% over three decades from the starting point of 1981. [Baldocchi, D., and E. Waller (2014), Winter fog is decreasing in the fruit growing region of the Central Valley of California, Geophys. Res. Lett., 41, 3251–3256, doi:10.1002/2014GL060018.]

        2. Richard McCann

          I’ll make one more point about the lack of proper experimental design. If Dr. Cahill has already concluded that the Nishi site is unsuitable, and he’s not interested in the comparative risk to other sites in Davis, why bother with further testing? What is he trying to demonstrate with more testing if it’s not for comparative purposes? I’m not sure what he’s trying to prove. The only motive I can see is to cause further delay and expense for the developer so as to kill the project. He apparently believes that there is already sufficient evidence in hand because he’s already made his conclusion; in that case, let’s decide with what we have.

          If on the other hand, he’s truly interested in measuring comparative risks for the alternatives, both in housing for students and for alternative uses of the property, then the experimental design has to be conducted in the manner that I laid out. It’s disappointing that Dr. Cahill didn’t have the foresight to recognize this requirement in his proposal. It calls into question his expertise to go beyond conducting field experiments that have been designed by others.

        3. Roberta Millstein

          Richard, you are assuming that relative risk is the question we are asking.  But it’s not at all clear that is what we are asking or should be asking.  When many of the places in town were built, we didn’t have many of these air quality studies in hand.  Suppose some of them do have bad air quality.  So, does that mean that we should live with unsafe conditions for all future sites?  Perhaps in the future, yes, we should do air quality studies for other suspected sites in Davis and see what our options are.  But that is a lot more complicated of a question.  The question before us is what to do about Nishi.  We need to address that regardless of what we do about other sites.  And we should not create new residential dwellings in places that have poor air quality; poor air quality at other sites (if any) would not mean that we should recreate and repeat the mistakes of the past.

           

          So, then, if the question we are and should be asking is, does this site pose an acceptable level of risk or not (and by the way, these things are defined in law — more on that in an op-ed for the future — and citizens might have their own views on what they consider to be an acceptable level of risk), then there is absolutely nothing wrong with his experimental design.  He is simply asking a different question than you would like him to ask.  But again, I think the question he is asking is perfectly reasonable.

           

          And I don’t think you are accurately representing what Dr. Cahill argues is distinctive about this site.  It is near a place where the freeway is elevated — that has been shown in other studies to have greater dispersal distances for particulates.  It is also near a place where the freeway narrows — so people are braking — and then accelerating again as they get to a lane.  This too has been shown in other studies to decrease air quality.  I don’t believe that there are other locations in Davis that are near elevated freeways where there is consistently braking and accelerating.  As for the inversion, I don’t believe that Dr. Cahill is referring to Tule fog.  One of the studies that he cites was done in the Central Valley in 2014 (which I don’t recall was a big year for Tule fog) and yet there was still the inversion.

          He writes:

           

          Two effects are involved. First, there is a much smaller volume of air into which the pollutants can mix, holding them close to the ground. Second, wind velocities are low, so less mixing occurs with cleaner upwind air. In such conditions ultra-fine metals, very fine metals, and diesel exhaust will linger, pooling enhanced by the fraction of the raised freeway that makes a dead air pocket next to the base of the berm.  This will be maximized on slow cold winds from the northeast, common in winter at night.

           

          You write:

           

          And while some students take summer classes, they are still represent a much smaller group than the number of workers who would be on site during the summer. And instead of assuming that the populations of either alternative would be the same, a proper scientific study would research this issue and make the necessary adjustments. Again, Dr. Cahill’s proposal and premature conclusions fail to consider this step.

           

          Are we really counting the numbers of students?  So, it is acceptable to expose a small number of students to poor air quality, but not a large number of them?  Again, I’m not seeing your logic here.

           

          You write:

          We shouldn’t let his motives go unexamined. We certainly don’t do that when we’re looking at Trump Administration appointees and supporters. We should be evenhanded.

           

          I think it’s better not to make inferences about motives unless there is a really clear reason to do so, and I don’t think that this passes that bar.  As for the Trump Administration, there are so many questionable actions that motives are practically moot.

           

           

      1. Richard McCann

        Roberta

        That he benevolently donated the land (and we don’t know the whole story of the circumstances that might have prompted the donation) does not give him a free pass on the rather blatant self-promotion for his firm to conduct the next round of testing.

        1. Howard P

          Could have been a great tax write-off… apparently got it ‘dirt-cheap’, values went up, so donation avoids cap-gains, and is able to use current market value as a “charitable contribution”… Economics 101.

          Buy low, donate high. Makes perfect sense…. if you decided that your original plan for the property wasn’t panning out.

          Perhaps Ron can work with the Cahills to do an audit of how the $ worked… follow the money…

        2. Roberta Millstein

          That he benevolently donated the land (and we don’t know the whole story of the circumstances that might have prompted the donation) does not give him a free pass on the rather blatant self-promotion for his firm to conduct the next round of testing.

          I didn’t say it gave him a free pass.  What I am saying is that it casts doubt on your interpretation of his call for testing.

  7. Richard McCann

    Roberta, he could have called for more testing in a manner that avoided raising questions of self-interested bias, but he did not, instead promoting himself. Do you question his motives now that this issue has been pointed out?

    1. Alan Miller

      Not to mention the unscientific hubris of the statement, “If there is but one chance in 10 that I am right, you should abandon Nishi for residential use.”

    2. Roberta Millstein

      Roberta, he could have called for more testing in a manner that avoided raising questions of self-interested bias, but he did not, instead promoting himself. Do you question his motives now that this issue has been pointed out?

      No, I don’t.  You’ve chosen to see something nefarious.  What I see is this: a citizen who has been concerned enough to devote many hours of time to documenting his concerns to the City (as he has presented them at Council meetings, at Commission meetings, and in the EIR).  He has written op-eds and even took out an ad at his own expense.  So far, what he has gotten for his trouble is to be insulted by you and others, to have his motives called into question, to be accused of practicing bad science (oddly enough, the peer reviewers and editors where his work is published see otherwise).  I am amazed that he is still willing to engage at all. He is perfectly positioned, both in terms of location and expertise, to do this study.  By all means, if you have a better idea of who should do it, you should name that group.  I am not opposed to that.  But I think the testing should be done, and I think we should not assume the worst about our fellow citizens who may — perhaps you find this unbelievable? — simply just be trying to do the right thing.

  8. Alan Miller

    Ironically, Monday was the first day the Charger Locomotives operated on the lead on the Capitol Corridor.

    While the new locomotives are much cleaner, that will be it for improvements for a long, long time.  The freight locomotives from Union Pacific are not part of this initiative.  While there are fewer freight trains through Davis, they are much heavier, and freight trains have from one to nine units per train, average is about four locomotives, while passenger trains have one for local and two for interstate services.  Freight locomotives are a mix of the entire UPRR fleet, and many are quite old.

    While Union Pacific has some lower-tier exhaust cleanup systems, I don’t believe they run Tier IV’s.  Many of the locomotives are from railroads they merged with, and many locomotives pre-date modern exhaust systems.  Union Pacific does not keep road locomotives with certain exhaust systems in particular geographic areas.  The locomotives can run on a train for thousands of miles, and changing out locomotives to enter a specific area is quite costly and time consuming.  The railroad is federally regulated and not bound by local rules.  Some areas have tried to have UPRR run only certain locomotives, to no avail.

    Over time, the fleet will be replaced with newer locomotives with newer systems.  The change to a fleet with all Tier IV or better locomotives is likely to be several decades from now.  The change will be very slow and very gradual.

    As for diesel rail locomotives being “six times worse” than trucks, in what context?  Is that per unit, per horsepower, moving the same amount of freight, taking into account cleaner locomotives on this corridor, number of locomotives, atmospheric conditions — it just doesn’t mean much on its own.

    I’m glad there is less pollution coming from the railroad with the introduction of the Chargers, especially as I live 100′ from the mainline and my home is blanketed with diesel exhaust from about sixty trains per day.  But the truth is that the air pollution from hauling freight so overwhelms the passenger train pollution that the overall decrease is rather minimal.

    The State Rail Plan is a long-term vision that is not fully funded.  It gives direction, but nothing in it should be taken as near-term or a certainty.  The Capitol Corridor is maxed-out on the number of trains it can run, and it will be years before any new cars are available for service.  In other words, expect little change beyond some more Charger locomotives in the near-term.

    The Vision Plan for the Capitol Corridor is a long-term plan to electrify the corridor and moving the freight to an old trolley right-of-way that exists in the open lands south and east of Davis.  This is a fantastic vision, but it is unfunded, will cost billions of dollars, requires the cooperation of UPRR, and is decades in the future even if funding is found.

    The point is, very little is changing regarding the railroad and the pollutant output for many, many years to come.   So the idea this will strengthen the argument for Nishi is not true — this is a weak argument that should not be further pursued.

    Having said that, I fully support the Nishi project and find no validity in the air pollution argument.

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