Commentary: Why Air Quality Concerns Should Not Drive Your Nishi Vote

Critics of Nishi warn that preliminary studies – insufficient to adequately test the impact of air quality at Nishi – are “very striking” and suggest that we need more data.  But supporters of the project look at the mitigation measures, the data we have, the risk analysis, and the actual health impacts along I-80 and come to a different conclusion.

Who is right?  To some extent the voters will have to make that determination.  However, from my viewpoint, we already have a pretty good test case – west Olive Drive.  In most ways, west Olive Drive mirrors the conditions we would expect at Nishi.  We don’t recognize that the street is sandwiched between the tracks and I-80 with similar wind patterns because it’s already been built out.

You’ll note that when Lincoln40 was proposed two weeks ago, no one mentioned air quality concerns.  Thomas Cahill did not come to public comment.  It was a non-issue.  And yet the map above shows the conditions ought to be very similar if not identical.

Nishi has been a different story.  In a recent article in the Aggie, Dr. Cahill compared Nishi to a site near Highway 60 in Ontario, California which some consider to be the most polluted site near a freeway in the nation.

An LA Times article notes: “Ultrafine particles are suspected of causing some of the illnesses among people living near traffic.”  It states: “Scientists are especially concerned about ultrafine particles, exhaust pollutants less than one-thousandth the width of a human hair. They’re so tiny they can lodge deep in the lungs and move into bloodstream, where they may harm the heart, brain and other organs.”

Dr. Cahill believes that, while Nishi does not have the traffic of Hwy 60, it is in some ways worse.  He cites the bottleneck conditions, the grinding that stops “upwind of Nishi,” and stagnant air flow.

But Charles Salocks called a lot of these problems into question.  He recently wrote: “There is no scientific basis for concluding that air quality at the Nishi site, as influenced by freeway traffic, is any different than at other residential locations, existing and proposed, along the Interstate 80 corridor in Davis.”

He said, “Meteorological data from the UC Davis Airport indicate that the predominant wind directions are from the north and the south. The elevated portion of I-80, which Cahill has cited as a potential source of braking emissions, is southwest of the Nishi property. The wind comes from this direction just 5 percent of the time, meaning that emissions from this portion of the freeway will affect Nishi residents very infrequently.”

While Dr. Cahill has argued the elevated section of the roadway makes Nishi more problematic, Dr. Salocks argues that “the elevated section of roadway will result in greater dispersion of traffic-related contaminants than would occur if the residences were at the same grade as the freeway.”

That same LA Times article that Dr. Cahill cites also finds: “It’s also preferable to live near a freeway that is elevated above or sits well below your home. That vertical separation can help disperse pollutants. At-grade freeways, where lanes sit at the same level as surrounding buildings, are worse because they put vehicle tailpipes right next to people’s lungs.”

Either way, the elevated section, the only major difference between west Olive and Nishi, constitutes just a small portion of the Nishi section – on the southwest corner and away from residential development plans.

The Times article notes as well, “It’s better to live behind a sound wall, especially one with thick trees and plants extending above it. Such obstacles, though not designed to block vehicle emissions, can reduce pollution levels immediately downwind.”

Furthermore, “If you live on a major boulevard, you’re better off when there are buildings of varying heights, parks and other open spaces that allow exhaust pollutants to disperse up and away from traffic, state regulators say. Avoid ‘street canyons,’ blocks with masses of tall buildings that can trap pollution.”

It is interesting, the selective reading of this article that Dr. Cahill so prominently cites otherwise when it suits his purposes.

Finally, there is existing data on health impacts from west Olive Dr. that we can use, if not as a definitive guide, at least as a baseline.

Dr. Tia Will, a member of the Vanguard board and a retired physician, points out that opponents of the project are consistently downplaying the issue of epidemiology – the health impacts of known exposure along I-80.

She told me, “According to the county epidemiologist who gathered data on this question during the Nishi 1 debate at my request, there is no evidence of increased risk at this location as measured by ER visits for respiratory illness.”

Later she clarified: “I want to clarify what I have stated based on the information provided by the county epidemiologist. There is no evidence of increased health care impacts along the I-80 corridor from Vacaville to West Sacramento. This would imply that the risk along this corridor is not increased over that of the other neighborhoods in Davis.”

In fact, we have ample data here that people have lived in the west Olive Drive era since prior to the 1960s.  And yet, with very similar conditions, we see no evidence of health impacts.

Is this information likely to convince anyone?  No.  And it’s not likely to convince Dr. Cahill either.

Dr. Cahill told me that he doesn’t support housing at Nishi regardless of whether or not air quality is an issue.  He wrote: ”Air quality issues aside, the property is far too valuable for just student housing.”

That’s his right, but as voters have to decide if they should vote for or against the project based on a number of factors, we would argue it should not be on the basis of air quality concerns.

—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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21 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    Recently some of the opponents of Nishi 2 have brought up the issue of social equity with regard to housing low income residents at the Nishi site. As a firm believer in social equity, I believe that what we have are competing priorities. Housing at this uniquely situated site in close proximity to the campus and downtown, or no housing at this site due to mostly theoretical concerns about unknown real world risk.

    The relevant alternative, no housing at this site, also has factors that disadvantage the low income student. These include having to either commute from distant sites within the city or in near by communities with the increased cost of car maintenance, added traffic with more pollutant exposure, more time required away from studies and other healthy activities while commuting, or possibly remaining homeless living out of a car, van or couch surfing – all of which are stressful as I can attest having been there.

    This is a complex issue weighing multiple factors: logistical, economic, social, and health related. There is no perfect solution. But when you add in the facts that no one will be forced to live there, education about the pros and cons can be presented to prospective renters just as was done for me when I chose to purchase my home 1/2 block from the tracks, renters have the option of accepting these risks ( just as we all accept risks daily in our lives) for one or more years thus lessening the time of their exposure if they are concerned.

    What I can say about my own university career is that I would have chosen the theoretical risk of living at Nishi over the very real risk,inconvenience, & frustration of having to commute, especially from a distant community daily. I suspect that there are many undergrads, grad students, and maybe even a few lecturers or other junior employees who may feel the same. Accepting the Nishi project allows them this choice. Rejection of the project denies them any choice in the matter. Hardly a social justice stance in my admittedly biased view.

     

    1. Don Shor

      They are apparently unconcerned about New Harmony, which is intended for lower income families, is even closer to I-80, and has no mitigation. So their concerns about social equity are selective. They are apparently also unconcerned about all the residents of Olive Drive, which is arguably a lower-income part of Davis and where housing is even closer to I-80 and has no mitigation. And they are apparently unconcerned about children playing daily at the playfields, which are bordered by the elevated PoleLine overpass and I-80 with no mitigation.
      So either their highly selective concerns about Nishi reflect poor understanding of risk analysis, or they are simply using air quality as a political tactic. “Social justice” is just their way of trying to tie a moral component to this.
      I am unaware of any of the opponents of Nishi expressing any concerns about air quality anywhere else along the I-80 corridor, including housing developments right nearby. In my opinion, every development that is near any roadway or freeway should have the best mitigation available. The Nishi developers are providing mitigation far beyond anything you will find at existing housing developments along the freeway. It is likely to be safer to live at Nishi than at New Harmony or anywhere on Olive Drive.

      1. Alan Miller

        The Nishi developers are providing mitigation far beyond anything you will find at existing housing developments along the freeway.

        Not true, DS.  They have not yet proposed to provide sealed rubber bubbles with air filtration for residents to roll around in when they leave their apartment.

  2. Tia Will

    Hi Aaron

    Comment appreciated. I call them how I see them project by project. Included in that is my disappointment that no students or low income folks came out in opposition to Trackside which provides only a handful of luxury apartments with no component of affordable housing and will help precisely zero students or low income folks at great personal cost to the adjacent homeowners.

  3. Tia Will

    Sounds like a great way to protect the kids from the toxic soup:

    https://goo.gl/images/GQyzs8

    Might also be a good way to lessen the effects of overtly aggressive behaviors. Now we would just have to decide how to implement. Should we encase the visibly poor on our streets? Perhaps more money would be generated by a shop selling them to the worried wealthy or the city could rent them out on an hourly basis? Maybe we should encase all city council members and staff rather than post a police officer in chambers? Take a minute off your speaking time for those who would feel safer during public comment and forgot to bring their own? We would however have to be careful about “blocking the sidewalk” as they are measurably larger than most of the un-bubbled population.

      1. Alan Miller

        Or maybe we can encase the residents near Trackside in a bubble so the Trackside project can move forward?

        Moderator:  we are permitted to GONG comments on the Vanguard, correct?

        [moderator: hopefully everyone is done taking this off topic now.]

      2. Howard P

        Or, we could enclose Trackside in a bubble… not exceeding 3 stories, of course… what this has to do with Nishi is beyond my ken/pay grade.   Off-topic?

  4. Todd Edelman

    In regards to

    shows no concern for

    To my knowledge I am the only regular contributor herein who has taken both an existential angle on I-80 and CA-113 and consistently suggested existing methods and strategies for reducing their negative impacts.

    Everything from new paving tech for the I-80 HOV bus lane project, to aggregating it with the 80-Richards project in order to create a regional bus node and offsite parking for a revitalized Downtown, to covering it to reduce noise and generate 1/4 of the City’s electricity needs via solar panels mounted on it, to making 113 into a tunnel from Russell to Covell, with the possibility of huge amounts of everything-proximate mixed-development on top.

    Also absolutely no one has responded to my comments on the serious error in the EIR which creates an impossible goal for pollution reduction inside buildings.

    1. Don Shor

      I am the only regular contributor herein who has taken both an existential angle on I-80 and CA-113 and consistently suggested existing methods and strategies for reducing their negative impacts.

      You have, but none of the things you suggest are ever going to actually happen, so it’s hard to take them seriously.
      Do you believe it’s ok for there to be day care and preschools at New Harmony? On Olive Drive? Do you think it’s ok for kids to be at the playfields east of the Poleline overpass every day?

      1. Alan Miller

        Do you believe it’s ok for there to be day care and preschools at New Harmony? On Olive Drive? Do you think it’s ok for kids to be at the playfields east of the Poleline overpass every day?

        I don’t think anyone should raise kids in the entire Los Angeles basin . . . but since they can, I’m OK with fans and ducts pumping micro-particles and exhaust from I-80 directly into the Nishi filtration system — supplemented by UPRR diesel exhaust of course.  Gotta be better than raising kids in most of LA.

        1. Todd Edelman

          Don: In regards to:

          none of the things you suggest are ever going to actually happen, so it’s hard to take them seriously.

          I think it’s actually “I don’t take you seriously, therefore none of the things you suggest are ever going to actually happen.”

          I will tell this story tomorrow night at my family’s Passover seder.

          There should be a long-term plan to remove residences and children-focused facilities including parks from within 500 ft. of I-80, replaced with a combination of trees, shrubbery and buildings which don’t integrate openable windows into their HVAC systems.

          Alan: So we shall see you at the next Council meeting proposing new Davis slogans such as “Better than L.A.”?

        2. Alan Miller

          Politics is the art of the possible.  We should all shoots for the Moon, or even the stars.  Andromeda is a bridge too far — I’m sorry, an under-crossing too far.

        3. Todd Edelman

          in regards to:

          Possible

          I shall quote myself: “…consistently suggested existing methods and strategies for reducing their negative impacts.”

          Andromeda is not the destination. It’s not rocket science.

        4. Mark West

          “There should be a long-term plan to remove residences and children-focused facilities including parks from within 500 ft. of I-80, replaced with a combination of trees, shrubbery and buildings which don’t integrate openable windows into their HVAC systems.”

          The negative health impacts of living near I-80 are considerably less than the negative health impacts of commuting on I-80 daily because you cannot find appropriate housing in town, probably by orders of magnitude. What we need is a long-term plan to provide appropriate housing for residents and to create the means for the City to pay its bills.

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