As part of the Homes at Deer Hill project approved by the Lafayette City Council in 2016, the City agreed to spend $2 Million for a public sports field located in the northwest corner of the intersection of the 24 Freeway and Pleasant Hill Road, in an area partly within and partly beyond 500 feet of the freeway. The agreement reportedly was generated in a closed door meeting between the City Manager and the developer. Using $2 Million of public money, the City would put a new sports field including parking in a location surrounded on three sides by heavy rush hour traffic and a major source of toxic air contaminants and particulate matter, with the expectation that a primary use would be for children’s sports teams including afternoon and weekend practices and games. No consideration or study was given to the issue of the air pollution and potential health impacts on the children, pregnant mothers, and other sensitive populations that would use the field on a regular basis.
In doing so, the City Council and staff ignored citizen comments and multiple red flags. As the Acalanes High School and Lafayette School Districts know, since 2003 State law (Senate Bill 352, 2003 Legislative session; Education Code 17213(c)(2)(C)), citing the risks of forty types of air pollutants generated by freeway traffic, has prohibited school districts from placing new schools and facilities within 500 feet of a freeway. Proven known, significant, adverse health impacts include higher rates of asthma, respiratory disorders, heart attacks, strokes, and lung cancer. For the last decade California air quality officials have warned against locating preschools and homes within 500 or 1000 feet of freeways. Multiple adverse respiratory health effects studied by the USC Environmental Health Center were cited by the Los Angeles Times in its article “L.A. Keeps Building Near Freeways, Even Though Living There Makes People Sick” (March 2, 2017). The medical literature on exposure to air pollutants is extensive and uniformly negative, particularly as to effects on children.
Paradoxically, in approving the development, the City accepted a project report requiring MERV air filtration systems in all residential units, and a written disclosure by the developer to residents that they are at risk of exposure to air pollutants if they open their windows. The EIR for the project stated the adverse health impacts of the freeway air pollution on the residents of the Homes would result in an onsite cancer risk at a level of 63, against the allowed state standard of 10; a cancer risk to residents over 6 times greater. So how did the City Council approve a sports field at a cost of $2 Million that would expose children to multiple toxic air contaminants without any safeguards or warnings whatsoever- an act that would violate State law if done by a school district?
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) has been issuing guidance on these risks for years- it publishes a “Planning Healthy Places: A Guidebook for Addressing Local Sources of Air Pollutants in Community Planning” that was ignored by the City. The BAAQMD Guidebook tells us that “air pollution levels are highest in close proximity to air pollution sources such as freeways, busy roadways …including toxic air contaminants (TAC), fine particulate matter (PM)…Children and infants are among the most susceptible to air pollution due to their developing lungs, higher inhalation rates, narrower airways, and less mature immune systems.” The Guidebook further states: “Other sensitive populations include the elderly, pregnant women, and those with respiratory or cardiovascular illnesses affected by air pollution…we need to be mindful that locating sensitive populations to close proximity to local sources of air pollution (such as freeways) can expose people to harmful air pollution.”
BAAQMD also produces a map, part of which is attached, depicting the field site and parking area within and adjacent to the areas shown in purple on Highway 24 and Pleasant Hill Road. The purple is for areas in which the BAAQMD has found “elevated levels of air pollution” and estimates that state and federal air quality standards can be exceeded, and for which it recommends “Best Practices to Reduce Exposure”. This includes “Health Protective Distances” for which Bay Area cities should “plan sensitive land uses as far from local sources of air pollution as is feasible.”
So what should be done? The City Council was not “mindful” of putting a children field use next to a freeway, did not evaluate the risk, nor did it consider “Health Protective Distances” and planning this sensitive use far away from a major source of toxic air contaminants. It should halt the fields project immediately. Concerned citizens, and especially parents of children that would be at risk, should demand a complete, independent, and professional analysis of the health risks, including appropriate sampling and medical evaluation or, alternatively, that the City reallocate the $2Million to a more suitable location in accordance with the BAAQMD recommendations.
It is UNACCEPTABLE that our City ignored these risks and the recommendations of qualified agencies such as BAAQMD. Our children deserve better! This project requires further study and public input.
This piece was written by Lafayette citizens Susan Candell, Scott Sommer, and Paul Melmed, with input from members of Save Lafayette.