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.