Effects of air pollution at Nishi project site hotly debated
On June 5, residents of Davis can vote for or against Measure J, which will approve or halt the Nishi project. The Nishi project is a set of proposed student housing apartments situated between the railroad tracks and I-80, behind the Manetti Shrem Museum. One of the biggest controversies surrounding the project is the air pollution that could affect future residents from the freeway and the railroad tracks.
“Preliminary and short-term air quality measurements were taken at a nearby site three years ago, and these measurements showed worse air quality than was measured on the same days by UC Davis and by the Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District,” said Roberta Millstein, a UC Davis professor in the philosophy department.
John Whitcombe, the developer of the Nishi project, disagrees with this assessment. He says there were some issues found at the site, but “nothing of any real consequence.” The project will be including measures to mitigate the possible air pollutants.
“The measured pollutants are associated with increased risk of lung damage, cancer, heart disease and developmental defects,” Millstein said. “After the preliminary tests were taken, air quality experts advised further testing to get a more accurate picture of the air quality at the site. However, both the City and the developer declined to have those tests performed.”
Millstein critiqued the project, saying that the developers have spent over $170,000 campaigning for Measure J, while the additional air quality tests would cost $30,000. In planning the project, Whitcombe says his company has already spent more than $1 million.
According to Whitcombe, this project has had more studies done for its Environmental Impact Report than any other development. Whitcombe also says he is focused on the big picture: places like the Nishi development will allow people to live more easily without a car.
Millstein and Thomas Cahill, a faculty member at UC Davis, believe that the Nishi site is a perfect storm of the worst freeway characteristics that make the air quality so harmful.
“The freeway has a high volume and has a high fraction of trucks, the freeway is elevated on an earth berm next to Nishi, the property is often downwind of the freeway and when it isn’t it’s downwind of the train. And due to the narrowing of the freeway adjacent to Nishi, there is both frequent braking and accelerating,” Millstein said. “No other site in Davis has all of these characteristics.”
To mitigate the effects of the pollutants, the developers are planning to put all of the apartments as far away from the freeway as possible, plant a forest buffer between the freeway and the apartments and place air filters in each unit. Whitcombe claims this project has more mitigation efforts than any other project before it.
“Basically, he [Cahill] says that the wind is blowing in this special direction, and it doesn’t blow in that direction,” said Tim Ruff, a partner in the Nishi project and property owner. “It’s pretty simple. He builds this case of a ‘perfect storm,’ but none of it, all of these things are happening at once, but none of them are really accurate.”
Cahill has worked in various air quality projects and did the initial tests at the Nishi site. He supported the New Harmony development, even though it was closer to the freeway, because of wind patterns he believes take pollutants away from the site.
Whitcombe and Ruff point out that there has not been controversy over other projects, even the ones closer to the freeway. This “selective activism” makes Ruff and Whitcombe think opponents of Measure J are not actually that worried about students’ health. Ruff characterizes the people who are behind the “No on Nishi” project as a “no growth, anti-student crowd”.
Cahill countered that the health of the students is what has made him so active in opposing the project and compelled him to use personal funds to publish a full page ad in the Davis Enterprise. One of Cahill’s biggest worries is the ultra-fine metals from brake pads, though there is no known threshold on the amount of particles humans can safely be exposed to. Chuck Salocks, who works in environmental toxicology, is more focused on the diesel particulates.
“They [the EIR] focused in on diesel particulates […] it’s regulated as a carcinogen,” Salock said. “And the measuring data from the 2015 study showed that the concentration of diesel particulates was equivalent to the statewide ambient concentration.”
In 2016, a similar project was proposed at the site, where student apartments, family housing and businesses would be built. The project was not approved, and Millstein claims the development could have more housing and increase the number of affordable housing units. However, by not significantly increasing the number of units as the proposed Nishi project in 2016, the developers did not have to do a new EIR.
If Measure J passes, Cahill plans on using his academic standing to call attention to the site.
“I would publish a paper, compare the Nishi site to the New Harmony site,” Cahill said. “Those ultra-fine diesel measurements are the highest I’d ever seen. Far higher than Detroit, six times higher than downtown Sacramento. I would publish a paper comparing Nishi to New Harmony and it would a black-eye on the University for decades.”
UC Davis does not take the same stance as Cahill. According to Ruff, the developers are working with the university in order to make the bike path that goes toward campus.
“Don’t believe me,” Cahill said. “Take your bike all the way down to the south end of the Shrem museum parking lot. Park your bike by the fence there and stay there for 30 minutes. And then decide you’d like to live there for a year.”
Written by: Rachel Paul — firstname.lastname@example.org