My View: Cahill’s ‘New Information’ Doesn’t Get Us Around the Same Problem

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UC Davis Professor Emeritus Tom Cahill has published an article in the local paper that calls for “updated science on Nishi air quality.”

In an email to the Vanguard, he said, “I am once again in the vanguard on the impacts of ultra fine metals on health – pre-natal. childhood, young adults, and in old age, supported by colleagues in the peer reviewed literature.”

He writes, “If there is but one chance in 10 that I am right, you should abandon Nishi for residential use.”

Instead, he writes, “The Nishi site would be a great place for the UC Davis World Food Center and other UCD-associated research with excellent visibility from I-80.”

But that is exactly where I am most troubled by his finding – he has no problem creating a research facility, which, if it were the World Food Center, could have outdoor components and could be where people potentially could work on the site for eight hours a day (or more) for a period of years or even decades, but he is unwilling to support the site for student housing where at most you are talking about students living there a year to three years.

In his article, he writes, “There are also new and compelling data on the health impacts of freeways from Europe and the United States, including our jointly published UC Davis/Environmental Protection Agency study of ultra-fine brake debris in Detroit with ‘… the potential of being a significant component in statistically established PM2.5 mortality rates.’”

He cites the EIR that found impacts “significant and avoidable,” but failed to note that the estimated risk level was on the order of 235 per million of added risk.

He writes, “That conclusion included measurements in the draft EIR of ultra-fine diesel exhaust, a known cancer-causing agent, but did not include 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.”

But in terms of how bad the Nishi site is, he admits he still doesn’t know and he 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.”

On the surface this might seem a reasonable suggestion, but my initial thought would be to oppose such a move for a variety of reasons.

First of all, he calls this the best chance to “avoid another divisive environmental conflict,” when the reality is that the data coming out of that are likely to be similar to the data that came from the February 2015 study – there is no consensus on what they mean or what the acceptable risk level is.

Moreover, Dr. Cahill has already tipped his hand.  He believes if there is even a one in 10 chance that he is correct, housing should be precluded.  At least three times in the last week he stated his preference for a World Food Center, or otherwise research/commercially oriented development, at Nishi.

The reality is that he believes “the land is far too valuable for just student housing.”

That suggests that no answer he finds will resolve the environmental disagreement because there are non-air quality reasons for his opposition.

Moreover, Tim Ruff told the Vanguard this week, “We paid Cahill’s group thousands of dollars to take measurements prior to the EIR,” the development team then implemented all of his recommended mitigations, and then Dr. Cahill simply moved the goalposts down the field and demanded that the development team do more.

If the city and developer are inclined to take up Dr. Cahill on his suggestion, we would suggest that they use personnel not affiliated with Dr. Cahill.

But, in the end, none of this information provided by Dr. Cahill fundamentally changes the conclusions from yesterday’s column.  At no time does he attempt to reconcile his opposition even to short-term student housing, when he appears to support longer uses that might require employees to undergo greater levels of exposure.

As the EIR notes, “Long-term exposure to this concentration of diesel PM corresponds to an incremental cancer risk level of 235 in one million above the background level of cancer risk from TACs in the region for residential receptors.”

We are talking about “long-term” and “multi-year exposure” that would be experienced by residents on the project site – except that analysis was performed for the previous project that had anticipated for-sale housing.  We are also talking about risk factors that weigh in the 0.0002 percent range.  Even a boost of six times would only elevate it to the 0.001 percent risk factor range.

So even if the ultra-fine exhaust does have a higher risk factor, why would it present a huge risk to a student living on the site for a few years as opposed to an employee working there for potentially many more?  This tension has not been resolved to my satisfaction.

Ultimately, I do not believe additional studies are going to resolve anything because those opposing housing at Nishi have plenty of non-air quality reasons for doing so.  It would be one thing if we were talking about people buying homes on the Nishi site to live potentially for decades.  But we’re not, and somewhere we must acknowledge that the length of exposure here is probably not enough to move the scales for risk factors.

—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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32 thoughts on “My View: Cahill’s ‘New Information’ Doesn’t Get Us Around the Same Problem”

  1. Ron

    From article:  “He writes, “If there is but one chance in 10 that I am right, you should abandon Nishi for residential use.”

    Strange, I’m not seeing this comment in your article yesterday, or in the Enterprise letter.  And yet, you stated that you included the entirety of the letter that he shared with you.

  2. Eileen Samitz

    David,

    What is evident in your article today, is that you will advocate for the new Nishi proposal no matter what comes of any additional air quality studies, even if the results irrefutably prove that the air quality is unhealthy for residential at Nishi.

    So, again, there is no objectivity in the Vanguard articles, just advocacy for pretty much any development coming forward. I know that it is difficult to fund raise for the Vanguard, but advocating for every development and essentially giving them free advertising, regardless of detrimental impacts from some of these developments, does not help the credibility of the Vanguard.

    1. Howard P

      What is evident in your post today, is that you will oppose the new Nishi proposal no matter what comes of any additional air quality studies, even if the results show that the air quality poses negligible risk for residential at Nishi.
      So, there is little objectivity in your posts, just opposition for pretty much any development of student housing (or perhaps any housing?  any development?) unless it is on campus, going forward. I know that it is difficult to be a dissenting voice, but opposing most development proposals, and essentially finding any reason to do so, regardless of positive or negative impacts from such developments, does not help your credibility.
       

  3. Eileen Samitz

    Howard,

    The obvious position of the Vanguard not even wanting to get the additional data regarding the air quality studies needed to get to a conclusive determination about the the health impacts regarding residential at Nishi, is indefensible. So it is the Vanguard which has the credibility problem.

    1. Howard P

      the air quality studies needed to get to a conclusive determination about the the health impacts regarding residential at Nishi

      Certainty, in an area of science/medicine where there is no strong agreement in those fields on the subject, is problematic… at best.

      Yes, more info is good… the problem lies in what the additional info actually means. Then there is the cost for additional info/data, even it will be questioned.

      Sidebar… do you have ‘conclusive determinations’ of how your computer and/or cell phone use affects your health?

  4. Howard P

    Am surprised the opponents to the project have not brought up train derailments, EMF’s, risks of the gas/other pipelines within or adjacent to UPRR and I-80… maybe there is a spaghetti shortage…

    1. Howard P

      that’s actually been done… the bribes I know of were concessions to the activist pet concerns or special recognition (goes to ego)… never heard of $ being involved…

      There is a plaque at the NW corner of Cowell/Pole Line (just behind the sidewalk) that will prove my point.  Paul Petrovich had it placed there in recognition of an activist against the Oakshade project, who was ‘turned’, and then fought City staff on requiring things from the developer… true story…

      Some will recognize the name from later involvements in development proposals…

      1. Alan Miller

        never heard of $ being involved…

        Cash is untraceable.

        Wow, a plaque honoring activist bribing . . . should definitively be on the wiki tour of Davis unique spots . . . perhaps should be brought up at City Council Meetings with oblique implications.

  5. Roberta Millstein

    When I read Dr. Cahill’s op-ed in the Enterprise about these new findings, all I can feel is increased concern over this project, and I imagine, setting aside all the politics, that is what most people would feel.  We are lucky to have a expert in town who can inform us of these risks and guide us through testing that would allow us to make a better informed decision.  I can only hope that the City Council will heed Dr. Cahill’s words and delay the vote until the necessary studies can be done.

    But David Greenwald would rather come to his own conclusions without having that information and using his own faulty assumptions about the number of years people would live on site and the types of activities they would engage in.  He would rather cast doubts on Dr. Cahill, as though he himself were simply a neutral judge of the evidence without any views on this project of his own.  Hopefully most people can see through this attempt at attacking the messenger and will join Dr. Cahill in calling for additional studies.  The trend in these studies seems clear; the more we find out, the worse the air quality looks for our health impacts.  We’d be wise to move cautiously here.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Hi Roberta – I took the day off for the most part yesterday.

      Some quick thoughts here.

      As I have stated before there is a logical leap that Dr. Cahill is taking here, that I call into question. I was a lot more willing to look at further studies of the property when the proposal called for for-sale units. I asked him point blank about this discrepency and got at best a side-stepped answer. I have come to the conclusion that his driver is not just air quality but rather that he believes that Nishi is too valuable for just student housing (a point I agree with him on in the perfect world).

      I don’t act as though I’m a neutral judge here, but you’re acting as though Cahill himself is. I’d like to see if there is anyone with expertise in matter who concurs with Dr. Cahill on this – he seemed to acknowledge in his email that the chances of this being catastrophically dangerous are actually quite low, and yet he has persisted in doing paid research work and then moving the goalposts mid-process.

      1. Roberta Millstein

        As I have stated before there is a logical leap that Dr. Cahill is taking here, that I call into question.

        And as I have stated before, you only come to this conclusion by making a number of questionable assumptions — you’ve not responded to me on any of those points.

        I was a lot more willing to look at further studies of the property when the proposal called for for-sale units. I asked him point blank about this discrepency and got at best a side-stepped answer. I have come to the conclusion that his driver is not just air quality but rather that he believes that Nishi is too valuable for just student housing (a point I agree with him on in the perfect world).

        He could believe both, for all I know.  But I think it is highly inappropriate to attribute views to people as you are doing, especially based on the little snippets you’ve presented here.  For example, a few days ago you inferred from a snippet that Dr. Cahill was not urging further testing.  Obviously, your inference turned out to be incorrect.

        I don’t act as though I’m a neutral judge here, but you’re acting as though Cahill himself is. I’d like to see if there is anyone with expertise in matter who concurs with Dr. Cahill on this – he seemed to acknowledge in his email that the chances of this being catastrophically dangerous are actually quite low,

        Catastrophically dangerous, as in, people are immediately going to drop dead?  No one has ever claimed that.  Surely our bar is higher than that.

         and yet he has persisted in doing paid research work and then moving the goalposts mid-process.

        When you say this, you are repeating a falsehood from the developer.  Dr. Cahill has consistently advocated for studies at NIshi, and has been doing so for some time.  Everyone knew that the studies that he did were the best that could be done at short notice.  He has not moved the goalposts.  He is asking for what he has asked for all along.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          Hi Roberta:

          You state that the goal posts have not been moved by Cahill. And yet, early on in the previous Nishi process, Tim Ruff and the development team met with Cahill. At that point, he made a series of recommendations including to take measurements. The development team paid Cahill’s group in the thousands to take the measurements prior to the EIR. Professor Cahill them made recommendations about mitigations, which again are included in the EIR. However, after representing that this would be sufficient, he came back with the expanded request for additional study by Cahill’s group at additional cost to the developer. That is the basis of my statement that he moved the goalposts.

        2. David Greenwald Post author

          “For example, a few days ago you inferred from a snippet that Dr. Cahill was not urging further testing. Obviously, your inference turned out to be incorrect.”

          Well, there was a reason for that belief and it wasn’t just an inference. He came out with the position that he was opposed to housing at Nishi and thought that it was a waste and Nishi was too valuable. A week later, he proposed the new testing as his “grand compromise” of sorts.

        3. Roberta Millstein

          You state that the goal posts have not been moved by Cahill. And yet, early on in the previous Nishi process, Tim Ruff and the development team met with Cahill. At that point, he made a series of recommendations including to take measurements. The development team paid Cahill’s group in the thousands to take the measurements prior to the EIR.

          This is false; you have been taken in by the statements of the developer, which you should have been skeptical of as a journalist and double checked.  Here, I have done your research for you.

          On January 9, 2015, Dr Cahill gave the following recommendations to the City Council:

          Establish the nature of the threats – I propose a 2 year grant to the Department of Physics for an upwind-downwind study of aerosols at the Nishi property, winter (now) and summer. These ultra-fine capability techniques are unique to the UC Davis DELTA Group and are presently being used in ongoing US EPA highway studies in Detroit and Cleveland and for the California Department of Justice in California projects. While I would act to oversee these efforts, I would take no salary.

          Independent review of the studies and the project – I propose that the Health Effects Task Force (HETF) of Breathe California of Sacramento -Emigrant Trails (BC/SET) evaluate all the work and make recommendations to the City and developer. The HETF has pioneered documentation of the health threats on very fine and ultra-fine aerosols in California. I would not be part of this review. 

          The measurements that were taken were done from Feb 3-13, 2015 (see the EIR) and were not at Nishi, but instead were near Nishi, thus falling far short of what Dr. Cahill had recommended the month before.  The EIR indicates that they were only a “preliminary study” and that this site was chosen because of the “short time frame.”

          Professor Cahill them made recommendations about mitigations, which again are included in the EIR. However, after representing that this would be sufficient,

          This is also incorrect.  Again, quoting Dr. Cahill from August 31, 2014:

          The best decision is to avoid situations were mitigation is needed. None of the mitigations below are totally effective, and many are politically or economically unrealistic.

          Again, you have taken in by statements of the developer without bothering to fact check them.    

          …he moved the goalposts.

          Demonstrably false, as I have demonstrated above.

          Well, there was a reason for that belief and it wasn’t just an inference. He came out with the position that he was opposed to housing at Nishi and thought that it was a waste and Nishi was too valuable. A week later, he proposed the new testing as his “grand compromise” of sorts.

           
          What is your evidence that this was a “grand compromise” rather than your complete fabrication in the first place that he had ever changed his mind on testing?

    2. Alan Miller

      We are lucky to have a expert in town who can inform us of these risks and guide us through testing

      Yeah, and damn the other experts who disagree with him . . .

  6. Eileen Samitz

    Here is more information on the  health impacts of air pollution from vehicular traffic on highways near residential from the California Air Resources Board.  So the Vanguard should stop trying to politically spin away this very important issue on the air quality problems regarding residential at Nishi. This short power point from the California Air Resources Board is astonishing, and well worth the time reading it.

    https://www.arb.ca.gov/research/health/healthup/jan10.pdf?_ga=2.58458474.172353025.1508346819-1813107753.1506970181

    1. Don Shor

      I’m really not sure that study is all that relevant to this discussion unless you also want to discuss air quality impacts everywhere else in Davis that is <500 ft. from the freeway.

      Conclusions:
      • Exposure near roadways varies significantly based on meteorological conditions.
      • Measurements conducted near the I-710 freeway in Long Beach show little impact >500 ft from the source (freeway).
      • Measurements observed near the I-10 freeway in West LA during early morning hours show impacts up to 1.5 miles from the source.
      • Need for future studies

      .

      http://davismerchants.org/vanguard/I-80%20corridor.png

  7. Eileen Samitz

    Don,

    The California Air Resources Board study is very relevant to this discussion, since it makes clear that building housing near a highway has significant health impacts on residents. So new it does not make sense to build new housing near highways.

    1. Don Shor

      The following complexes south of Olive Drive are within 500’ of I-80 and are south of the railroad tracks:
      Lexington Apartments
      Cesar Chavez Plaza
      The Arbors Apartments

      Playfields Park Batting Cages and fields are within 500’ of I-80 on the south side, nestled in a low area. Heavily used by children.

      Davis Diamonds Gymnastics is about 200’ south of I-80.

      New Harmony Mutual Housing Community is less than 500’ south of I-80.

      Should I even mention Lincoln 40? Probably not.

      You think this report should uniquely apply to Nishi? And if it’s too toxic to live there, then it’s obviously too toxic to have any businesses or research facilities there.
      So now we would eliminate two of the proposed rental housing sites, removing at least a couple of thousand beds from the 4000+ that we need. UCD won’t be replacing those. You know that. So it just makes it necessary to find other places to build rental housing, either in the city limits or by annexation.
      Unless you think Dixon, Woodland, and West Sacramento should provide all the rental housing that is needed, since UCD won’t.

    2. Alan Miller

      it makes clear that building housing near a highway has significant health impacts on residents.

      Good thing it only has health impacts on residents when building new housing.  If it included current residents, we’d be up S— Creek.

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