How Big of a Concern is Air Quality at Nishi?

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Bicycle Connectivity on West Olive
Bicycle Connectivity on West Olive

In October, air quality expert and local resident Thomas Cahill testified before the Planning Commission that “the threats from air pollution (diesel and ultra-fine metals) are so grave that it should be modified to eliminate all residential housing.” He attributes the severity of the problem to the fact that the “Nishi property is pinned between two major diesel sources, so that no matter which way the wind blows, the property will be impacted.”

The city has recognized this issue through the Environmental Impact Report, where they believe that they can reduce the impact by planting tress to create a barrier of sorts.

Planning Commissioner Cheryl Essex pointed out at last week’s planning commission hearing that tree planting “is not something that’s going to work right away, so the outdoor air quality may take some time to improve. It may never improve – it’s not a proven mitigation measure.” She noted that this might be possible if they delayed for-sale housing until the tree mitigation is proven effective.

Brett Lee asked Gary Jacobs about the air quality concerns in the report and, in particular, Professor Cahill’s suggestion that putting a biological barrier of trees could reduce the impacts of the ultra-fine particulate matter in the air.

Mr. Jacobs stated that “trees are extremely effective” in reducing ultra-fine particulates, “the question is at what point does it become effective?” Dr. Cahill, he said, found that in some places “they have virtually no effect because there is a well-developed canopy of trees, the ultra-fine particulates just don’t make their way down to people.”

The research is not there to determine at what point trees have an effect in the reduction of that matter. He said, “This has been theoretical over the years, Dr. Cahill has been a leader in this research. He has recommended certain tree types – pine needle conifers, also broad leaf trees that are sticky.”

Mr. Jacobs told Councilmember Lee that this is one of the suite of measures from the document to be reduced, but “exactly what risk it reduces is not quantifiable, there is no data that allows us to do this.”

Brett Lee asked how thick the barrier needs to be. The plan appears to call for a thin, single-file line of trees. He asked if it would be more effective if it were 50 feet.

Mr. Jacobs responded that the key is having the barrier. “Creating a line of trees that creates a buffer is the intent here. Having a wider buffer isn’t necessarily going to create a so-called ‘safe zone’ if there’s not the line of site blockage.”

Instead, he said what they really need “is just creating a barrier between the freeway and the project site with trees,” he said.

The draft EIR identifies the air quality impacts, even with mitigation measures that “are expected to result in substantial reductions to exposure levels of UFPs [ultra-fine particulates] and diesel PM [particulate matter].” The DEIR warns that “the level of effectiveness cannot be quantified.”

They conclude, “For this reason, and because ‘safe’ levels of UFP exposure and diesel PM exposure have not been identified by any applicable agency, or by a consensus of scientific literature, this analysis assumes that resultant levels of UFP exposure and diesel PM on the project site could potentially be associated with a substantial increase in health risks. Therefore, this impact would be significant and unavoidable.”

This led Dr. Cahill in his report in October to conclude, “in present conditions, it is my opinion that causing people, and especially vulnerable populations spending much of their time on the Nishi property, to move into a situation of such great potential harm is simply not supportable.”

Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis, however, pushed back on the issue, stating, “I’m really frustrated about this one.” He argued that “we need a basic course in risk analysis.”

For instance, he noted that 1 in 3500 farmworkers in this country will die on the job this year. “That’s an acceptable risk to us,” he stated. “We live with that. We consume the food that they produce.”

The mayor pro tem explained, “What we’re hearing about this property is 1 in 4500 people will over the course of an entire lifetime contract a certain form of cancer. That’s not annually, that’s 1 in 4500 over the course of lifetime. We’re talking about magnitudes of difference.”

He said, “These are miniscule risks compared to the risks that we face every day in our lives.” He noted that people who drive their car their entire lives will have three accidents on average. “That’s the risk we live with,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Davis said he is not claiming there is no risk, but he believes that going out of the way to mitigate a small risk is not going to make a real difference for most people.

One in 10 people, he said, will contract some form of a respiratory cancer in their lifetime. And now “we’re talking about an incremental risk that will be 1 in 4500. I think we need some perspective on this. I don’t think it’s a major issue.”

Ultimately the planning commission, while clearly concerned about the air quality issues, recommended that the council move forward with the project. The question is now what the council will decide to do.

—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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41 thoughts on “How Big of a Concern is Air Quality at Nishi?”

  1. Tia Will

    One issue that I have not heard addressed in the debate over air quality at Nishi is the anticipated effects of the trend in California towards the use of more energy efficient and less polluting automobiles. What might be of interest is a comparison of the pollutants ten years ago with those present now. I would anticipate that we would see a downward trend and that we might anticipate that this trend would persist as people adopt the use of more fuel efficient or alternative technologies.

    1. Don Shor

      The Air Resources Board has a diesel risk reduction program in place, with funding approved by the voters several years ago to provide money to reduce emissions from trucks, school buses, and diesel equipment. The ARB regulates fine particle emissions. The place to implement Dr. Cahill’s research findings is at the state regulatory level, not at local land-use planning levels.

      Robb is exactly right on this. It is a risk assessment subject, and people are notoriously bad at risk assessment. Agricultural operations produce significant amounts of fine particle dust emissions, particularly orchard operations. We consider that acceptable.
      We make risk evaluations every day. If it isn’t ‘safe’ to live there, then why would it be reasonable to have workplaces and businesses there? If that site is ‘unsafe’ then why was New Harmony ‘safe’ when it is right across the freeway? It isn’t that those choices are completely free of risk; the judgment has been made that they have less risk. So again: a risk assessment has been made. I believe Dr. Cahill considered New Harmony acceptable for residential development. So there is some level at which the increased risk of respiratory illness was considered acceptable.

        1. Don Shor

          I don’t know what they said or what questions they asked. There’s plenty of information on this topic available. CalTrans, ARB, EPA, and others have lots of studies. UCD researchers have plenty to offer as to mitigation and effective practices.
          http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/env/air/research/ucd_aqp/Documents/Mitigation-Measures-Package-Report-5-Micah-v3.pdf
          But ultimately this is a risk assessment, and that context is rarely given. ‘X’ # of possible increases in a particular disease is not a useful statistic. Risk assessment is much more complex that that, and Robb has addressed it well. I can provide data on the fine particle emissions caused by farming operations as well. There is no zero risk development, no zero risk activity, and public policy can’t be based on unreasonable approaches to risk assessment.

      1. hpierce

        Yeah, and if you look at the pollen/mold etc. numbers for this part of the Sacramento Valley, for susceptible individuals, there are risks of “illness”, “morbidity”, etc.

        Risk assessment (honest, fact-based, disclosed) is key… if someone thinks no one should have any risk whatsoever, from anything… well, that’s a bit stupid.

        Disclosure (honest/fact-based) of possible risk to those who move into a given site is fair, as then folk have a choice to make.  Nishi is not a “superfund site”… nowhere close…

      2. Tia Will

        Don

        Did Dr. Cahill weigh in on the issue with regard to New Harmony ?  Is there a difference in wind patterns or other factors with regard to the two sites. I certainly do not know so these are honest questions.

        1. Don Shor

          He did.

          His analysis and understanding of local conditions indicated that the air quality at the project site would not be expected to be substantially worse than other locations in the city (Attachment 20).

          http://community-development.cityofdavis.org/Media/Default/Documents/PDF/CDD/Planning/Project-Applications/New-Harmony-Apartment-Project/25-Staff-Report-20080904-New-Harmony-Apartment-Project.pdf
          I believe wind patterns are a factor, yes. Just as wind patterns were a factor in the discussions about the wood burning ordinance.

        2. Matt Williams

          SODA, I’ve always wondered how much air pollution the railroad adds.  Noise pollution, definitely, but when you compare the number of automobile cars and engines going east and west on I-80 to the number of railroad cars and engines going east and west on the UP tracks, are they comparable?

        3. Alan Miller

          Did Dr. Cahill weigh in on the issue with regard to New Harmony ?  Is there a difference in wind patterns or other factors with regard to the two sites.

          Yes.  At New Harmony, the winds of hypocrisy blow away from the project, while at Nishi, the winds of false professional opinion blow towards the project.

        4. Matt Williams

          Alan Miller said . . .  “How would you like “how much” expressed?  In units of muchness?”

          For consistency, it would make sense for the railroad’s contribution to air pollution to be expressed in the same units of measurement as the Interstate’s contribution to air pollution is currently measured.

  2. Alan Miller

    Oi!

    How big a concern is air quality on Olive Drive?

    Did you know CHILDREN live on Olive Drive?

    Save the Olive Drive children!!!!!  They live near a ROAD and a RAILROAD.

    Hark!

    Some people have lived on Olive Drive longer than renters are predicted live at Nishi (but not buyers, they are doomed) — oh, I’m sorry, how many years was that, medical/air scientists?  What number is X?

    All of you bringing this up as an issue are so full of S—.

    Yes, living next to a freeway and a railroad has the potential to expose you to higher levels of air pollutants than somewhere else, all else being equal.  Which it isn’t.  Other than that, unless you are prepared to mount a similar fight to evacuate Olive Drive, you can’t claim the same for Nishi.  Future Nishi residents’ health is not as important as the GRAVE, GRAVE situation of current Olive Drive residents, already sandwiched between the dreaded freeway and railroad.  Why aren’t you fighting for the health of Olive Drive lungs?

    I’ll tell you why:  you don’t care about either one.  You are using this non-science to forward the agenda of not building on Nishi.

    Covers pulled.

    1. Davis Progressive

      again, i wonder why you belittle this point.  just because children live on olive, doesn’t mean it’s healthy.  i think don’s and robb’s comments are more helpful than yours.

      also you keep saying “you” – who are “you” talking to?

      1. hpierce

        A lot of children have grown up on Olive Drive over the years, and yet their is no indication that they have had any “clusters” of illness/morbidity or death as a result of many years of “exposure”.

        1. Davis Progressive

          you could be write, but if you aren’t write, how soon would we know and could we track it to olive drive?  that’s what always concerns me because cancer clusters are hard to identify and may take years to manifest.  but again, you might be right, i just don’t like writing things off without looking into them.

          1. Don Shor

            I think this is probably an inaccurate use of ‘cancer clusters’, and I think the issue is respiratory diseases primarily.
            Again: if there is a regulatory concern, it is probably best addressed by state agencies.

        2. Barack Palin

          Again: if there is a regulatory concern, it is probably best addressed by state agencies.

          As it should be with default soda in kid’s lunches, soda tax, plastic bag bans, fireplace smoke bans, etc……

          Funny how some of you liberals like to pick and choose what should be decided locally and what should be handled by the state.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            I’m not sure that’s a fair criticism. The trend I see is that activism starts locally and filters up. What do you see in the reverse direction.

        3. Mark West

          “I’m not sure that’s a fair criticism. The trend I see is that activism starts locally and filters up.”

          Too often local activism is based on emotional and fear-based arguments rather than factual ones. We see theories presented as fact and used as the basis for the argument, or even worse, the proponent will acknowledge that the facts don’t support the cause but continue to argue in favor based on the hope that ‘it might make a difference anyway.’

          To make the change at the State or Federal level, you actually have to have the facts to back up your argument or you will be unable to convince the regulatory agencies to act, and these sorts of decisions should be based on fact, not emotion.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            “To make the change at the State or Federal level, you actually have to have the facts to back up your argument or you will be unable to convince the regulatory agencies to act, and these sorts of decisions should be based on fact, not emotion.”

            You actually believe that?

          2. Don Shor

            Not speaking for Mark, but I believe that regulatory agencies are much more likely to make evidence-based decisions than city councils are. Good example right now is the EPA reviewing imidacloprid. Do you believe the Air Resources Board formulates regulations primarily based on scientific evidence, or primarily based on political considerations?

        4. Tia Will

          hpierce

          yet their is no indication that they have had any “clusters” of illness/morbidity or death as a result of many years of “exposure”.

          Honest question.

          Do you know this to be true or are you merely asserting it because you have not heard of any ?

      2. Alan Miller

        also you keep saying “you” – who are “you” talking to?

        A common thing on the Vanguard, this “you”.

        Simply put:  “If the Foo S–ts . . . “

    2. Frankly

      You are using this non-science to forward the agenda of not building on Nishi.

      Agree.  Unfortunately this type of stuff works with a notable percentage of Davis voters.  OMG they are going to breath that polluted air, get lung cancer and die!

    3. Tia Will

      Alan

      Oh for heaven’s sake. Asking that more people not be put at risk is not the same thing as arguing for evacuation of an already established area of housing. I am not arguing one way or the other with regard to the safety of Nishi. I am merely stating that attempting to prevent new harm is not the same as arguing for mitigation of all previously existing harm.

      The analogy here would be arguing that if a particular brand of air bag is found to be defective and a voluntary recall has been sent out but if not being made mandatory, then we should not argue that no more of the air bags with this same defect should be allowed to be installed in new cars. Obviously we should block the installation of more of the harmful bags even as we allow people who own the original not to have their car confiscated until they get it replaced.

      1. Alan Miller

        See 8:19am posting below as to what the nature of this risk is.  The Nishi air hazard consultant and Robb Davis got this right at Tuesday night’s meeting.  That is my answer.

  3. Alan Miller

    It may never improve – it’s not a proven mitigation measure.” She noted that this might be possible if they delayed for-sale housing until the tree mitigation is proven effective.

    It’s AIR, not groundwater.  It’s a risk factor, not a direct toxic exposure level.  What is proven in this context?  So the lifetime chance of a cancer goes from 1 in 4000 to 1 in 5000 by risk factor formulas (which is what they are).  Is that “proven mitigation”?  At least, people, admit you don’t even know what you are talking about.

  4. Jim Leonard

    This air quality issue seems diversionary to me. It is a much smaller issue than traffic circulation and the incestuous relationship between U.C.D. and City Hall.

    The air quality issue is also an issue that can possibly be solved much easier than traffic circulation or University/Town corruption. If made controversial enough and solved, many people may decide to accede and accept the “fact” that Nishi is without problems.

    Davisites, from experience, should get used to the idea that any political conversation includes the possibility of manipulation. the conversation about Nishi is no exception.

    1. Matt Williams

      Jim Leonard said . . . “… the incestuous relationship between U.C.D. and City Hall.”

      Jim, if someone came up to me on the street and asked me to describe the relationship between UCD and City Hall, I would have a hard time choosing between “distrustful” and “dysfunctional.”  Other than John Meyer’s long ago migration from City Hall to UCD, which is now ancient history, what other examples of “incest” do you think exist between UCD and City Hall.

  5. Robb Davis

    incestuous relationship between U.C.D. and City Hall

    University/Town corruption

    Why don’t you lay it out for me Jim.  What exactly are you accusing the City of?  Come clean.  This type of vague accusation is unhelpful.

  6. Tia Will

    hpierce

    Tia… are you asking me to ‘prove a negative?’”

    No. I am asking you to state your evidence or lack there of since I honestly do not know on what you are basing your assertion.

    1. hpierce

      After many years (43+) in this community, after reviewing 5-6 environmental assessments (including EIR’s) for this particular area (Nishi/Olive Drive/Gateway) over the past 20+ years, I have seen precisely zero studies, indicating ANY data showing ACTUAL evidence of disparate incidences of respiratory illness (cancer, asthma, mesothelioma, nasal congestion, colds, respiratory flu, etc.) accruing to folk living on Olive Drive, even for long periods of time.

      I dare anyone to show such data exists.

      My “assertion” is that there is no evidence of disease/morbidity unique to proximity to I-80/UPRR.  I also assert that we have no one-eyed, one horned, flying purple people eaters in Davis.  But can “prove” neither assertion.

  7. Tia Will

    hpierce

    Ok, fine. But many people have posted many opinions over the past 5 years or so  demonstrating that they were unaware of statistics provided by the county on local and regional health issues and on activities already being engaged in on the county level.

    I was not challenging your conclusion, simply asking for the basis of it. Perhaps if you have not done so, it would be worth while to check with the public health statistician to see if such a population study has been done with regard to asthma and COPD in Yolo County. I was merely hoping you might be able to save me some time.

  8. Tia Will

    Alan

    Yes.  At New Harmony, the winds of hypocrisy blow away from the project, while at Nishi, the winds of false professional opinion blow towards the project.”

    I do not doubt you experience in this area. What I do know is that even experts in a field can have differing opinions with regard to the same information and differing interpretations of the same data without anyone being hypocritical of duplicitous. Colleagues and I have frequently butted heads over the best way to proceed based on identical information. What would be useful would be an explanation from Dr. Cahill about why he sees the two situations differently. I think an enquiry would serve us better than name calling in this situation where we clearly are not privy to his thought process.

    Maybe a possible area for follow up David ?

    1. Alan Miller

      I think an enquiry would serve us better than name calling in this situation where we clearly are not privy to his thought process.

      I prefer name calling.

      “George! George!”

      . . . . . for example.

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