Guest Commentary: Nishi 2.0 Is an Environmental Injustice

by Roberta Millstein

Proponents of the revised Nishi project –– Rich Rifkin being the most recent — have dismissed the air quality concerns raised by Dr. Tom Cahill and others. But to allow this project to go forward would be to perpetuate an environmental injustice.

First, let’s be clear on who would be living at Nishi and for how long. Today’s undergraduates often take classes in the summer and, due to the need to work to afford tuition, many take more than four years to graduate. And even though the apartments would be designed to attract UCD undergraduates, the same design is likely to be attractive to graduate students and young professionals.

In truth, anyone could choose to live there.

So, we cannot assume that residents will only be living there “a year or two,” as Mr. Rifkin states.

We tend to think of people in their late teens and twenties as healthy, and many are.  But some are particularly sensitive to poor air quality, such as pregnant women, young children, and people with lung conditions, with asthma being an increasingly common condition in the U.S. among people of all ages.

Second, let’s be clear about the risks. Mr. Rifkin dismisses the cancer risk at Nishi as “tiny.”  But is it tiny?  Based on measurements taken near the site, the EIR estimates an “incremental
cancer risk level of 235 in one million above the background level of cancer risk from [toxic air contaminants] in the region for residential receptors.”

Mr. Rifkin then falsely states that the number is “more likely” 197. But that’s not what the EIR says. The EIR notes that there are a number of factors at the site that probably account for the estimated incremental risk based on measurements (235 in one million) being higher than the expected incremental risk (197 in one million), including the elevated freeway and the frequent congestion in the neighboring segment of the freeway.

As Dr. Cahill has emphasized, the problem with Nishi isn’t just that it is near the freeway. It’s that it’s located adjacent to an elevated freeway, allowing pollutants to travel farther, in part of the freeway where a lane is lost, resulting in braking that releases very fine and ultra-fine metals into the air (and then increased pollutants from accelerating), and in an area where there are frequent air inversions in winter, allowing pollutants to be trapped.

More importantly, is the “235 in one million” increased cancer risk accurate?  We really don’t know. The measurements were taken near Nishi, not at Nishi, and only for 10 days. Dr. Cahill has been calling for more extensive studies since at least January 2015, and has recently renewed that call. We can and should do those studies to find out if the number is higher or lower; that could go a long way toward settling the cancer risk question.

More importantly still, if it is more or less correct, is “235 in one million” increased cancer risk small?  The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) doesn’t think so. Their threshold is 100 in one million; it is for this reason that the EIR considers the cancer risk to be “substantial.”  Davis’s citizens deserve as much protection as Bay Area ones.

Yet more importantly still, is cancer risk the only health risk, as Mr. Rifkin implies? No, it is not. As Dr. Cahill has made clear, with citations to peer-reviewed publications, there are other health risks: doubling of early heart attacks from ischemic heart disease, 5% per year loss of lung function in children, exacerbation of asthma, and increased chances for having an autistic baby.

According to the EIR, the ultrafine particulates measured near Nishi exceed the California Ambient Air Quality Standard and the National Ambient Air Quality Standard. Again, we would know more if we performed the proper studies at the Nishi site.

Mitigations will no doubt be promised, but how is that supposed to work for a residence? Will residents have to keep their windows closed at all times?  That is neither energy efficient nor a pleasant way to live. Will they be warned not to engage in heavy exercise with their windows open or when in the vicinity of the building?  I seriously doubt it.

The EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

What we know about Nishi so far suggests that the air quality is below the standards set by relevant bodies. To allow residences to be built there, residences that will largely house young people just trying to get a start in life, is an environmental injustice.

Roberta Millstein has been a resident of Davis since 2007 and a commissioner on the Open Space and Habitat Commission since 2010.  She is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at UC Davis, specializing in philosophy of biology and environmental ethics.  All opinions expressed here are hers alone.



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32 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: Nishi 2.0 Is an Environmental Injustice”

  1. Don Shor

    young people just trying to get a start in life

    do not meet your definition of

    all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income

    So your use of the term environmental injustice is not accurate. That kind of undermines the whole point of your essay.

    Also, the fact that your mind is obviously made up on this issue undermines your repeated calls for further testing.

    1. Roberta Millstein

      So your use of the term environmental injustice is not accurate. That kind of undermines the whole point of your essay.

      No, it doesn’t.  We are treating students and young people differently than we treat others.

      Also, the fact that your mind is obviously made up on this issue undermines your repeated calls for further testing.

      Since air quality is my primary objection to building at that site, this is simply false.  If the air quality studies showed a lower risk than expected, I would change my position.

      1. Tia Will

        Roberta

        I am glad to hear you say that if future study showed a lower than expected risk you would change your position. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time you have made this clear, including in today’s article in which you state:

        But to allow this project to go forward would be to perpetuate an environmental injustice.”

        as though it were a factual statement. In reality, because the only available study was not even done on the Nishi site and was brief in duration as you stated, we have no idea whether or not it would be an “environmental injustice”. When you say that you believe further study is indicated, I am in agreement with that being optimal practice. When you state to go forward is an “environmental injustice” that is an opinion only and I believe should be expressed as such.

         

        1. Roberta Millstein

          I am glad to hear you say that if future study showed a lower than expected risk you would change your position. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time you have made this clear,

          I believe I have stated that many times on these comment pages.

          including in today’s article in which you state:
          “But to allow this project to go forward would be to perpetuate an environmental injustice.”
          as though it were a factual statement. In reality, because the only available study was not even done on the Nishi site and was brief in duration as you stated, we have no idea whether or not it would be an “environmental injustice”. When you say that you believe further study is indicated, I am in agreement with that being optimal practice. When you state to go forward is an “environmental injustice” that is an opinion only and I believe should be expressed as such.

          It is a factual statement in the only way we have factual statements: it is based on the best available evidence.  Should we get better evidence, then we need to revise what we take to be the facts.  Based on what we know now, it would be an environmental injustice to build residences.  If we learn that the air quality is not as bad as we thought, then it would not be problematic to build residences there.

        2. Mark West

          “it is based on the best available evidence.”

          No, it is based on an untested theory.

           

          The true injustice, environmental and otherwise, is the severe shortage of appropriate housing for Davis residents. Your advocacy here is an attempt to perpetuate that injustice.

        3. Roberta Millstein

          No, it is based on an untested theory.

          Dr. Cahill has cited numerous peer-reviewed papers that appeared in the relevant scientific journals.  Your bare denial has no credibility.  Based on the measurements so far, the conclusions are sound.  If we want better evidence, we should do more testing.  The injustice is acceding to development at the expense of people’s health.  It is no benefit to be given housing under these conditions. We can do better.

  2. Ron

    Don:  “Also, the fact that your mind is obviously made up on this issue undermines your repeated calls for further testing.’

    Right – and this quote coming from someone whose mind is “obviously made up on this issue”, which undermines your repeated calls to ignore Dr. Cahill’s call for further testing.

    1. Don Shor

      I would have no problem with Dr. Cahill’s team securing an NSF grant to do air quality monitoring all along the I-80 corridor, as well as at other points in Davis and elsewhere, and then presenting that data along with comparisons to other urban areas in the region and the state. Then the context of this air quality issue would be better explained and perhaps the comparative risk analysis would be of more value.

      1. Ron

        Hmm.  That’s a change from your earlier position, in which you (incorrectly and repeatedly) stated that there are no existing standards that can (already) function as a baseline.

        1. David Greenwald

          Posting this for the purpose of clarification. This comes from the EIR: the YSAQMD (Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District) does not specify a cancer risk threshold for sensitive receptors, and in the absence of a locally adopted threshold, “BAAQMD [Bay Area Air Quality Management District] specifies a cumulative threshold of an excess cancer risk of 100 in a million for new sensitive receptors that would be sited in proximity to multiple TAC [toxic air contaminant] sources (BAAQMD 2010:2-5). Thus, both estimates of the incremental increase in cancer risk for residential receptors located on the project site are considered to be substantial.”

        2. Roberta Millstein

          David, yes, I mention the BAAQMD standard in my article.  Part of my point is that such standards already exist, even if they don’t in Yolo County.  And we would be running afoul of them if we proceeded.

        3. David Greenwald

          Roberta: When you say, “we would be running afoul of them” – is there “afoul” here to run.  From what I’ve read in the EIR, they acknowledge it as a substantial impact, they recommend the following mitigations…  Is there more to it than that?

        4. Roberta Millstein

          Roberta: When you say, “we would be running afoul of them” – is there “afoul” here to run.

          “Afoul” would be building residences at Nishi in spite of the significant health impacts.

      2. Howard P

        Don… good idea… an NSF grant would  should take the “who’s paying for the study, and are there biases in the results because of that?”, issue…

        And, it takes the City and project proponent out of risking a big piece of money, with the distinct risk that if the study shows that the risk is 99 out of a million risk (cancer), that the methodology is flawed, or that if the Bay Area has a 100/million standard, Davis should be a leader, and require a 25 out of a million maximum risk.

        I am convinced that no matter how the study is done, no matter what the results, positions would not change.

        It’s not about air quality… never has been… am convinced that those who say it is, lie, and will “double down” with “how dare you opine that?!?  Prove that everything will be perfect!”  Or something like that…

      3. Tia Will

        I agree with Don. And if we really cared about thorough health risk assessment, we would also include epidemiological data for all of the studied areas to determine whether the number of ppm of contaminants actually is correlated with  increased cases of diseases in the studied areas.

      4. Rhonda Reed

        I agree.  I am not convinced that the Nishi site is so unique, topographically. I believe that all the residents on Olive Drive, New Harmony, the proposed Lincoln 40 project are or will be comparably affected.  This is based on personal experience of living in similar proximity to the 91 freeway in Los Angeles county.  I agree that putting high density and affordable housing on our freeway corridor is, indeed, an environ mental justice issue.

  3. David Greenwald

    My view of this remains:

    1. These are lifetime risk factors and the student renters will have exposure for only a very limited time

    2. “The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) doesn’t think so. Their threshold is 100 in one million; it is for this reason that the EIR considers the cancer risk to be “substantial.””  But what does substantial mean?  One question is why did the BAAD choose that level?  There is no epidemiological basis for it.

    So you have a low risk to begin with over a life-time, short-term exposure given the nature of the development, and the EIR doesn’t say don’t build it, instead it recommends mitigation measure.  I find it interesting that none of these studies have talked about what the impact of mitigation measures will be – how they alter the exposure and outcomes.  And of course none of them are measure impact over one to three years of time.  Instead it’s a lifetime risk.

    1. Ron

      Might want to do testing at the actual site (for more than 10 days), instead of guessing about what’s there.

      And again, you’re ignoring the other (more recent) data, regarding increased risk of heart attack, etc.

      The latest letter from Dr. Cahill is really what convinced me that there’s a need for testing.

      1. David Greenwald

        “The latest letter from Dr. Cahill is really what convinced me that there’s a need for testing.”

        As opposed to be before, when you were only partially convinced even as you argued around the clock? That’s not a credible statement on your part.

        “Might want to do testing at the actual site (for more than 10 days), instead of guessing about what’s there.”

        Where was the previous ten day test performed?

        1. Ron

          If you go back and review my comments, you’ll see that I didn’t put forth arguments regarding air quality, prior to the latest letter from Dr. Cahill.

          And actually, I’m still not putting for arguments regarding air quality, other than the need to perform actual testing.

           

    2. Roberta Millstein

      I find it interesting that none of these studies have talked about what the impact of mitigation measures will be – how they alter the exposure and outcomes. 

      Right — because there is no evidence showing the degree of their effectiveness.  It’s a wing and a prayer.

  4. Tia Will

    Roberta

    In your article you mentioned the increased risk of autism. I have no desire to go back and re research this, but will summarize the findings of the experts in statistics and public health that I consulted due to my severe limitations in the area of mathematics/statistics. Both reviewed the studies on freeway proximity and autism and independently reached the same conclusions. While there was a weak correlation, there was no demonstration of causality and both cautioned about extrapolating a very small weakly correlated finding to a geographically, spatially and demographically different area. Prenatal risks are within my area of expertise so I read the study myself, consulted with several of my colleagues including a perinatologist, none of whom felt that this study rose to the level of concern. The perinatologist further stated that to the best of her knowledge there was no clear evidence of a relationship between freeway proximity and autism ( possibly also confounded by the variability in diagnoses placing children on the autism spectrum with regional differences in community practice of diagnostics).

    Now I realize that I am relying on “expert opinion” which is always the weakest form of evidence. But let me be clear that this is also what you are relying on with Dr. Cahill’s opinion.

  5. Richard McCann

    First, this is a misappropriation of the term “environmental (in)justice”. That term relates specifically to the impact of environmental degradation on communities that have been historically impacted by such degradation, have faced discrimination, and lack income and wealth to exercise political power in opposition and make efforts to mitigate the impacts. The affected population at Nishi is unlikely to meet this definition in any. It is a new community, mostly composed of ethnic groups that have faced little discrimination in the past. Most come from households that are higher on the wealth spectrum, and their expected future incomes will be well above the national average.

    Second, the measure environmental risks have no context. The context must include two alternatives: (1) the risks at alternative housing locations for these populations (most of whom will be students at UCD), and (2) the risk for employees at a business park as an alternative use. Dr. Cahill has asserted that the business park is a preferred option, but we haven’t seen any evidence that this will lower the overall risks–it appears to be just shifting the risk from one population to another, and in fact that risk may increase. And what about the incremental risk of the proposed housing along I-80 and 113?

    We’re left with an incomplete picture from Dr. Cahill. We know that the duration of residence at Nishi 2.0 will be much less than in a typical housing project no matter who resides there. What is the adjusted risk (given that most risk studies rely on decades of exposure at the baseline metric)? We need more basic answers from Dr. Cahill before plunging into further studies is warranted.

    1. Roberta Millstein

      First, this is a misappropriation of the term “environmental (in)justice”. That term relates specifically to the impact of environmental degradation on communities that have been historically impacted by such degradation, have faced discrimination, and lack income and wealth to exercise political power in opposition and make efforts to mitigate the impacts. The affected population at Nishi is unlikely to meet this definition in any. It is a new community, mostly composed of ethnic groups that have faced little discrimination in the past. Most come from households that are higher on the wealth spectrum, and their expected future incomes will be well above the national average.

      It is not a misappropriation.  First, proponents of building more student-geared housing have repeated the stories told by students themselves: stories about homeless students, couch surfing students, students forced to commute.  These are not wealthy students who could probably figure out a better situation if they could.  These are students who we’d be saying, look, you don’t have to be homeless, you can live here, oh, but sorry, the air quality is poor and your health may be compromised.  Choose between homelessness and that.  (Actually, worse: they wouldn’t be making the choice, since they won’t know about the air quality issue). That’s environmental injustice.  Second, you are making some “interesting” assumptions about ethnic groups and wealth.  UCD is very diverse ethnically and racially and has a high proportion of first-generation college students.  And most students will not be aware of this dialogue prior to the vote, and so effectively not have a voice; after the vote, if it is successful, they will move in without knowing the risks they will be taking.  We can do better for young people starting out in their lives, whether students or not.

      Second, the measure environmental risks have no context. The context must include two alternatives: (1) the risks at alternative housing locations for these populations (most of whom will be students at UCD), and (2) the risk for employees at a business park as an alternative use. Dr. Cahill has asserted that the business park is a preferred option, but we haven’t seen any evidence that this will lower the overall risks–it appears to be just shifting the risk from one population to another, and in fact that risk may increase. And what about the incremental risk of the proposed housing along I-80 and 113?

      Re: 1: This is why we have standards, and as I point, out, citing the EIR, we would be in violation of these standards if we built residences at Nishi.  If past sites should not have been built on, that is not an argument for continuing to make bad decisions.  Re: 2: Why do those have to be the two alternatives?  It might turn out that the exposure to workers at a business park is less, and thus unproblematic.  We’d need some better information than we have now in order to determine that; my guess is that this may be correct, but that’s just my sense of work environments (with their closed windows) vs living environments (with their open windows, especially at night int these parts).  But suppose it turns out to be just as bad for workers as for residents?  That’s not an argument for building residences.  That’s an argument for not building at all.

      We’re left with an incomplete picture from Dr. Cahill. We know that the duration of residence at Nishi 2.0 will be much less than in a typical housing project no matter who resides there.

      No, we don’t know that.

      What is the adjusted risk (given that most risk studies rely on decades of exposure at the baseline metric)? We need more basic answers from Dr. Cahill before plunging into further studies is warranted.

      Further studies would let us know if the measured values are significantly higher or lower than what has been measured already, to give people a more accurate sense of the risks, to allow them to make a more informed decision when they vote.

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