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