Today, the California Supreme Court heard the appeal trial on the City of Albany’s Environmental Impact Report for the UC’s long-contested proposed commercial development project for the historic Gill Tract Farm. An intergenerational group of Albany residents, UC Berkeley students, UC Village student families, and East Bay Food Justice advocates packed the court to hear the case, which contests the failure of the City’s Environmental Impact Report to consider alternatives that would pave less of the open space on the historic Gill Tract Farmland and have a significantly lower environmental impact. A verdict on the case is expected within several weeks.
“Their failure to explore alternatives is a severe public health threat to the community. This area has long been known for its dangerous air pollution from the 580 and 80 freeways and the Pacific Steel Casting factory, which has led to high levels of asthma in the community. The EIR highlights that the proposed development would be bringing in 6,500 new cars per day on Monroe Street, right next to the village day care center, the little league fields, and Oceanview Elementary School. The EIR even states clearly that these traffic impacts cannot be mitigated. The only solution is a smaller project or none at all.”
– Vanessa Raditz, Master of Public Health Candidate, UC Berkeley
Civil rights lawyer Dan Siegel, representing the community, argued that the point of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is to guarantee the public the right to information on the environmental impacts of development projects. He argued that the EIR’s failure to provide data on alternatives impinged on Albany citizens rights, prohibiting them from advocating for a project with less environmental and health impacts.
“If you have multiple alternatives that meet the objectives of the project, then you are required to choose the one that has a smaller environmental impact, unless it is does not meet the project goals, or is economically unfeasible. The City’s EIR not include required data on the impact of these alternatives.“
– Dan Siegel, Civil Rights Lawyer
A UC lawyer argued on behalf of the City of Albany, a reflection of the ongoing conflicts of interest in this case. Their lawyer argued that the smaller project would not meet the City of Albany’s goals from a plan set forth in 2002 to increase the intensity of commercial activity on San Pablo. However, Dan Siegel pointed out that Albany City Council has itself stated clearly in the record that the “existing zoning alternative”, which in this case means the a smaller grocery store as preferred by many community members, would in fact meet the city’s stated objectives.
“I have been involved in the EIR process since the beginning scoping meeting in 2007. For years, community members have consistently spoken up at planning and zoning and city council meetings, saying that if there is to be building on the land at all, we want a less environmentally impactful, alternative, local grocery. The city found there were overriding considerations that allowed them to adopt the proposed project despite traffic and noise pollution impacts that could not be mitigated. The city did not follow the CEQA law in rejecting the alternatives to the project. I hope that the court will see that.”
– Ed Fields, local Albany resident
Albany residents have been advocating for a UC Center for Urban Agriculture and Food Justice on this public land for nearly 20 years. A 2014 report from UC Berkeley students states that this center could potentially include a small cooperative grocery, which could be food distribution hub for local sustainable agriculture, an alternative supported by community members. However, the UC continues to steamroll forward a short-sighted commercial development that would endanger the health of the local community.
“As a student parent living the University Village next to this development, I want my son to be able to grow up in a healthier environment, and I am upset that my University would not consider community desires for a less polluting option for this land. The are putting profit above student and community well being.”
– Suzanne Klein, UC Berkeley student, University Village resident
Judge Klein expressed to the court that he is “not too keen” on CEQA, to the dismay of community members who have dedicated their lives to environmental protection. The judges’ decision is therefore likely to hinge on whether or not they rule that the case law Dan Siegel evoked are applicable to the particulars of this case.
“The answer depends on if the court is just going to defer to the city. The city says that they want to do it. CEQA says that they have to provide the data first, and choose the feasible project that is least environmentally impacting. The law is supposed to protect us from unjust state decisions. If the city can just call this a policy choice, then there no point to CEQA.”
– Dan Siegel, Civil Rights lawyer
Community members remain optimistic of justice for the Gill Tract Farm.
More information can also be found in the report on a Food Initiative on the Gill Tract Farm, compiled by Students for Engaged and Active Learning (www.sealstudents.wordpress.com).
Health Impacts of the Proposed Development
The current proposed development of the Gill Tract could exacerbate environmental health vulnerabilities for the students and children at the adjacent University Village, Oceanview Elementary, and the Village day care center.
In accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), there was an Environmental Impact Report for the project released in July 2009 and responses to comments released in February 2011 by LSA associates (these can be found on the Albany City Council’s website: http://www.albanyca.org/index.aspx?page=1322). The EIR found many “significant impacts” and listed mitigation measures, but the report did not adequately investigate or consider alternative development options.
There are many other cumulative impact factors that were not adequately considered in the EIR.
Traffic, Air Pollution, and Asthma
Cumulative Impacts: The CalEnviroScreen is a tool created by the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal EPA) to evaluate environmental injustices. The tool is also available to the public so that communities can access information about the pollution levels and socioeconomic and demographic vulnerability factors in their census tract.[i]
Traffic: The CalEnviroScreen2.0 shows that the census tract for the proposed development is already in the 98th percentile for traffic. The EIR acknowledges that increased traffic is a “significant but unavoidable impact”, adding thousands of cars to neighboring roads, including 6,500 new cars per day to Monroe St, right next to UC Village’s childcare center.
New air pollution: The supermarket in particular will be bringing in diesel delivery trucks and idling vehicles to the parking lot. Diesel and idling vehicles are of particular concern when considering the health impacts of air pollution because of the particular make-up of their exhaust[ii],[iii].
Existing Air pollution: The CalEnviroScreen2.0 shows that this census tract is already in the 79th percentile for diesel. These new pollution sources will add to the long history of air pollution and odor concerns from the University Village families. A new year-long study of air quality in the neighborhood, conducted by UC Berkeley students, has just begun in response to these years of complaints. Community complaints suggest that we may find that air pollution levels are much higher in this area during peak intervals than we have previously expected using region level, time-averaged measures. There is concern that the development’s increase to baseline pollution measures could increase the severity of these peaks, and trigger more asthma attacks.
Asthma: The CalEnviroScreen2.0 shows that asthma rates for this census tract are in the 78th percentile. Childhood asthma has long been a major public health concern in the Bay Area, and its increase could cause incremental economic impacts[iv]. For instance, hospitalizations from asthma cause children to miss school days, reducing their educational achievement[v]. Asthma reduces parents’ productivity from work as they increase their time on caretaking[vi]. On a state level, asthma hospitalizations put significant strain on public health insurance. MediCal was the main source of payment for 40% of asthma hospitalizations in the City of Berkeley from 2002 to 2006[vii].
o Children: Ocean View Elementary and the UC village day care are both directly across from this new development.
o Elderly: The assisted living facility that is part of the proposed development would be going into this high air pollution neighborhood, and could add burden to the emergency system.
o Non-English speakers: The CalEnviroScreen2.0 shows that this census tract is in the 93rd percentile for linguistic isolation. It is not clear if these language needs were taken into account during public comment.
o Racial Minorities: CalEnviroScreen2.0 shows that this census tract has 49% Asian population and 14% Hispanic population.
o Poverty: The Village Residents Association’s Affordability Survey exposed that there is a large degree of hidden poverty and financial and housing instability in this neighborhood.
Positive Health Impacts of Alternatives
Meanwhile, there is an alternative plan being proposed by a community-student partnership, which seeks to maintain the land for urban agricultural research, education, and local food production.
Air pollution remediation: There is growing evidence that urban forests are capable of cleaning air pollution[viii], and there is some evidence to suggest that gardens may be capable of this as well[ix]. Trees and vegetative areas can also cool the surrounding environment, which mitigates the production of ozone during heat waves, [x] another common trigger of asthma attacks. The food initiative could therefore serve as an open space buffer between major roads like San Pablo Avenue and the elementary school, day care center, and student housing, while also producing research and knowledge about the best way to maximize urban agriculture for pollution reduction.
Food Access: The Village Residents Association’s Affordability Survey found that there were high levels of hidden poverty within the community, and that 46% of student families receiving food assistance programs. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that structural changes to our food system that improve food security and access to health-promoting foods could save $17 billion in annual national medical costs[xi]. A Food initiative would provide additional pioneering research into program models that could provide access to health-promoting produce in way that is more affordable and accessible to the entire community, including student families. These could become pioneering food system solutions to our public health epidemics related to food access and nutrition.
[i] Rodriguez, M., and Alexeeff, G. “Draft California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool, Version 2.0 (CalEnviroScreen2.0); Guidance and Screening Tool.” April 2014. Accessed May 12th, 2014. <http://oehha.ca.gov/ej/pdf/CES20PublicReview04212014.pdf>
[ii] “Health Effects of Diesel Exhaust; A fact sheet by Cal/EPA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and the American Lung Association”. Accessed online 3/4/14. <http://oehha.ca.gov/public_info/facts/dieselfacts.html>
[iii] Balmes, J. R. (2011). “How does diesel exhaust impact asthma?” Thorax 66(1): 4-6.
[iv] Hall, J., et al. (1994). “The economic value of quantifiable ozone and PM related health effects in the San Francisco Bay Areal; Final report to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.” The Institute for Economic and Environmental Studies, California State University. Accessed online 3/4/2014. <http://gate1.baaqmd.gov/pdf/0756_Economic_Value_Quantifiable_Ozone_PM10_Related_Health_Effects_San_Francisco_Bay_Area_1994.pdf>
[v] Hall, J. V., et al. (2003). “Economic Valuation of Ozone‐Related School Absences in the South Coast Air Basin of California.” Contemporary Economic Policy 21(4): 407-417.
[vi] Wang, L. Y., et al. (2005). “Direct and indirect costs of asthma in school-age children.” Prev Chronic Dis 2(1): A11.
[viii] Nowak, D. J., et al. (2006). “Air pollution removal by urban trees and shrubs in the United States.” Urban forestry & urban greening 4(3): 115-123.
[ix] Speak, A., et al. (2012). “Urban particulate pollution reduction by four species of green roof vegetation in a UK city.” Atmospheric Environment 61: 283-293.
[x] Nowak, D.J. et al (2010) “Air Quality Effects of Urban Trees and Parks.“ National Recreation and Park Association. Accessed Online 3/4/2014. <http://www.nrpa.org/uploadedFiles/nrpa.org/Publications_and_Research/Research/Papers/Nowak-Heisler-Research-Paper.pdf>
[xi] “The $11 Trillion Reward; How simple dietary changes can save lives and money, and how we can get there” Union of Concerned Scientists. August 2013. Accessed May 12th, 2014. < http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/food_and_agriculture/11-trillion-reward.pdf>