By Roberta Millstein
Many potential benefits for Nishi have been touted by proponents and many concerns have been raised by critics. But one issue trumps all the rest: the “significant and unavoidable” air quality impacts due to the proximity of Nishi to train tracks from the northwest and I-80 from the southeast. (“Significant and unavoidable” is the language used in the City’s own Final Environmental Impact Report). It is a matter of ethics. No matter what the potential benefits, Davis should not sacrifice the health of its most vulnerable citizens to try to achieve them.
Here is my story. In 2003, my partner Gilbert and I were living in the South Bay and came very close to signing a lease on a seemingly-wonderful rental property in Mountain View: great location, nice unit, good price. We were ready to sign, but decided to sleep on it. That night, we had dinner with some friends and were excitedly telling them all about our prospective new home.
“But isn’t that near a Superfund site?” one friend asked. Ummm, what? So, we hit the internet as soon as we got home to find out that our friend was correct. It turns out that there was Trichloroethylene (TCE) in the air, soil, and groundwater. At that time, the EPA had deemed the amounts of TCE to be safe, but they were in the process of re-evaluating their safety.
Gilbert and I pictured ourselves living in the apartment, day after day, wondering if we were slowly being poisoned. We decided not to sign the lease after all, and told them why. The leasing agent claimed not to know anything about it, but the owner did. He had researched the issue and “had put it to rest in his mind.” Apparently, he did not think that we deserved the same chance to come to our own conclusions. In 2005, the EPA completed its Final Health Assessment for TCE, formally characterizing it as a human carcinogen and a non-carcinogenic health hazard. The levels we would have been exposed to would have been unsafe.
Dr. Thomas Cahill, a universally acknowledged expert on issues of air quality and their impact on human health, has said that at the Nishi site, “the threats from air pollution (diesel and ultra-fine metals) are so grave that it should be modified to eliminate all residential housing.” The location, between an elevated freeway where braking often occurs (releasing ultra-fine metals into the air) and the train tracks, is a “perfect storm” of harmful health effects: doubling of early heart attacks from ischemic heart disease, 5% per year loss of lung function in children, exacerbation of asthma, increased cancer rates from diesel exhaust from accelerating trains, and 86% increased chances for having an autistic baby.
The Nishi site is being touted as ideal for housing for students and seniors. Seniors have been identified among the sensitive groups most subject to risk. As for students, as a professor I can attest to the fact that some students have children or become pregnant during their time at UCD, a fact that might be easy to overlook. Some students have asthma; some might not even know that they have it (I myself didn’t experience my first asthma attack until I was twenty). Among tech workers (other likely residents at the site) there are also women who have children or who might get pregnant.
But the risks are low, some Measure A proponents would say. And so, shouldn’t we let people decide whether they want to face those risks for themselves? But that is exactly the problem.
Will prospective residents know the risks they might be facing, or, like Gilbert and me, will they find out only if they are lucky, by chance? Will they be able to make an informed choice for themselves, or are we making the decision for them if we build housing at this site? Is that ethical?
And are the risks low? Our expert, Dr. Cahill, has called them “grave.” And no one has put forward any studies to challenge the findings from him and his colleagues.
Some Measure A proponents would point to planned mitigations. But of the possible mitigations, Dr. Cahill has said, “Many are unrealistic, none are completely effective.”
Other Measure A proponents would acknowledge the risks, but say that they are outweighed by the potential benefits: money for the city, needed housing, more jobs, etc. In my line of work as a philosophy professor, that is known as utilitarian reasoning: seeking the greatest good for the greatest number. But one known flaw in utilitarian reasoning is that you can end up sacrificing the few for the good of the many. Do we have the right to subject our fellow citizens to these harmful health effects, most likely without their knowledge or consent, for possible (not even guaranteed) benefits to the City, no matter how good they are? I think we don’t, and I think that if my fellow citizens reflect on this issue for awhile, they too will recognize that health is the most basic of rights, fundamental to all other rights. And that we should not benefit ourselves at the expense of a few. We can find other ways to solve our problems that don’t result in severe harms.
Vote “no” on Measure A.