Guest Opinion: Protecting Pasadena’s Public Health Requires Working Together to Keep Our Air Clean

Published : Tuesday, May 28, 2019 | 4:31 PM

Last week marked the start of the sediment hauling phase of the Devil’s Gate Reservoir Restoration Project, which is operated by Los Angeles County Public Works’ Flood Control District. The Project’s objective is to restore flood control capacity at the Devil’s Gate dam by removing 1.7 million cubic yards of sediment accumulated over many years, with the most recent inflows coming from debris runoff resulting from the 2009 Station Fire. The Project calls for 4 years of aggressive hauling — up to 425 round trips daily by heavy-duty diesel engines towing double dumpers — for 8 months annually, followed by up to 6 years of limited hauling to maintain the reservoir.

What is intended to be a public safety project to protect residents downstream from an over-filled dam, introduces long-term public health hazards to those living, working, recreating and studying in the vicinity of the dam itself. The problem with this effort to restore flood capacity is not just the dust from excavation and hauling — it is also that the trucks themselves do not control their own diesel pollution. Passenger cars are smog-checked to verify that their pollution controls are working; heavy-duty engines used on the Project are not. Thousands of truck trips are required each week to remove the sediment, and there are thousands of people — from students to seniors in Pasadena — spending each weekday breathing the same local airshed around the Devil’s Gate project.

As a community, Pasadena has a long history of advocating for the public health of its residents, young and old alike. Look no further than the multi-year concerted effort by Pasadena and its supporters to hold Metro to common sense standards as Metro tried to extend the 710 freeway and create a toxic tunnel in the process. During the 710 discussions, we learned many lessons about the short- and long-term health effects of freeway pollution and excavation dust. Health symptoms get worse when fine particulate dust combines with tailpipe emissions to pollute the air available to us. It’s time to apply those insights to Devil’s Gate as community, City, and County efforts are made to keep diesel pollution and the disturbed fugitive dust from harming those near the Project.

Diesel emissions contain poisonous gases and carcinogenic particulate matter, both of which cause documented harm to adults and children, whether they suffer from asthma and respiratory ailments or later develop cancer due to their exposure to the roadway pollutants small enough to penetrate lung tissue. Particulate matter varies in size from 10 microns to 2.5 microns, on down to 0.1 microns (sizes which are similar to animal dander for those of you who have animal allergies). Approximately 95 heavy-duty trucks (making up to 4 round trips daily from Devil’s Gate to the disposal sites in Irwindale and Sun Valley) will travel past dozens and dozens of homes plus 2,500-3,500 students each day of the hauling season — a population that is already exposed to pollutants from the 210 freeway. Anyone in proximity to the Project is being asked to compromise their health and well-being to varying degrees. Some will live with the health consequences from uncontrolled microscopic dust and diesel long after the project is complete. Roadway pollution stays with children forever.

Initially, County Public Works planned to use trucks ostensibly capable of performing at the 2010 EPA emissions standards. However, government agencies and their research partners have investigated the engine performance of a sampling of truck models and report that real-world emissions are nowhere close. The problems are so persistent that nearly 40,000 heavy-duty diesel trucks that operate in California alone have been recalled by the EPA, but the recall is voluntary. Those that are not recalled still have problems controlling diesel emissions, since such systems are degrading much faster than anticipated by the engine manufacturer. Often, a truck driver often does not even know of the failures (no “check engine” light comes on). To make matters worse, trucker compliance to state-required “smoke” testing (to verify control of diesel particulate matter but not smog) is, at best, 50%, and the uncontrolled poisonous gases are invisible to visual detection. How can the County and the community have confidence that the hauling trucks actually control carcinogenic and poisonous diesel emissions?

We have been working with Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger and her staff since November to understand the flaws of the diesel industry and the ensuing public health impacts on communities where aggressive diesel truck hauling takes place. The outcome of our collaboration is a list of public health safeguards that, if fully implemented, may reduce the cancer and health risks to a level deemed “acceptable” by the Air Quality Management District. The County has become an active partner in this effort, with Director Mark Pestrella and his Public Works staff working to address the challenges. It had originally planned to conduct the Project one way, but with input from relevant regulatory agencies on specific issues and community advocates articulating improvements, the Project is in a better place. The County is not required to monitor air quality during the Project, but through Supervisor Barger, it now has a network of devices that report dust levels that make it easier for the contractor to keep harmful dust out of neighborhoods. Also, truckers who comply with existing state law are rewarded by the County with steady work, since all truckers must provide paperwork verifying their compliance to state regulations and that their engines are not under recall. Recalled engines that have been repaired can return to the Project. We thank Supervisor Barger and Director Pestrella for being responsive to community requests designed to protect everyone.

Hard work is now required in order to implement the remaining public health safeguards since “paperwork” measures and dust-tracking devices address hazards only to a limited extent. The County should describe how it will operate when baseline ambient air quality in hot months is unhealthy even before trucks arrive to get their loads. Nearby residents and school principals need to know how to alter outdoor activities much like they do when a “smog alert” is issued. A clear process for reducing the traffic and vehicle idling is warranted since more vehicles transit the hauling routes than was present when the Project impacts were studied. The community wants to know how the County will act when the monitoring devices show high levels of diesel pollutants. Unlike excess fugitive dust that might be better controlled with more water trucks or tarping the loads, a simple fix for dirty trucks is not available. What about the trucks that don’t control invisible diesel pollutants but are not yet recalled? How can such faulty trucks be screened and sent for repair sooner rather than later? A “community safety plan” written by the County can inform appropriate action and describe a transparent decision-making process for adjusting the project activities in the event that current measures fall short.

The Devil’s Gate Project is a demanding endeavor on many levels, due to the overlap of significant flood control, habitat and health issues that each warrant thoughtful planning. This is not solely about one or two downstream flooding events; it is also about the long-term health compromises that have the potential for great harm to the three communities touching the Project. Our hope is that the current partnership between the community and the County will gain more strength as Pasadena studies the Project’s public health impacts and applies its expertise to solving the tough challenges ahead.







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