Richmond Community Air Quality Committee votes to delay new regulations
on September 23, 2019
At a meeting in the Richmond Memorial Civic Center auditorium earlier this month, a committee voted to postpone regulating local air pollution in favor of gathering more data, a delay some say comes at a significant cost.
“Seventy years of bad health outcomes is enough,” said Matt Holmes, committee member and executive director of environmental youth group Groundwork Richmond.
The Richmond-San Pablo Community Air Quality Steering Committee formed last year in response to AB 617, a 2017 state law requiring that air districts involve communities in highly-polluted areas in local air planning. The September 11 vote represented Richmond’s first-ever community-led air quality decision. The committee chose to spend this year installing a network of air quality monitors before reducing emissions. But it’s still unclear what measurements will show – and how they will help the community address its urgent health needs.
Richmond residents breathe some of the worst air in the country: California’s EPA data for 2018 put sections of the region in the 99th percentile for national air pollution. Richmond also has above-average rates of illness. According to California Health Survey data, Richmond has elevated rates of cardiovascular disease, and Contra Costa County’s highest asthma hospitalization rates.
Richmond is not unique: nationwide studies tie predominantly low-income areas – often settled along highways and industry – to high pollution and poor health. In 2018, the National Institutes of Health published two meta-analyses: one linked air pollution exposure to lower socioeconomic status while the other tied it to an increased risk of cardiorespiratory disease.
“The link between air pollution and adverse health outcomes is publicly proven, persistent, and preventable,” said Rohan Radhakrishna, Contra Costa County Deputy Health Officer.
Landmark bill AB 617 required, for the first time, that local air districts involve communities in California’s most polluted areas in the process of planning air quality improvements. In 2018, 122 areas statewide applied for the program. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) chose ten, including the Bay Area communities of West Oakland and Richmond.
CARB gave selected communities two options for 2020. They could move straight into drafting new regulations on known pollutants. Or they could spend the year identifying pollutants by selecting neighborhood hotspots, installing air sensors, and tying elevated measurements to local sources.
West Oakland’s committee, under the leadership of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP), chose to start regulating emissions. The environmental justice organization, founded in 2004 to address the health effects of local air quality, has been partnering with research organizations to monitor air quality for over a decade.
Most recently, WOEIP received results from a 2017 Environmental Defense Fund-Kaiser Permanente study that mapped West Oakland residents’ electronic health record data over data from over 100 air sensors. WOEIP also got data from Aclima, a company that puts sensors onto cars to build a block-by-block picture of air quality over time.
With no such infrastructure in place, Richmond assembled a 32-member steering committee, co-led by representatives from First Five California, RYSE Youth Center, the Richmond NAACP, and two neighborhood groups. CARB tasked the steering committee to work with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to choose one of the two state options.
But “the sheer breadth of community members involved” has been a challenge for Richmond, said Elizabeth Yura, Bay Area Air Quality Management District Director of Community Engagement.
Yura also said Richmond’s size makes data collection difficult: Richmond is four times bigger than West Oakland, with far fewer sensors already installed. Currently, Richmond has ten: three state-mandated sensors along the Chevron fenceline and seven from UC Berkeley’s BEACON research project. With fewer data points, it becomes more difficult to tie elevated emissions to their sources.
To focus future monitoring, the steering committee plans to choose neighborhood hotspots, or targeted data collection areas, where environmental groups Richmond Groundwork and PSE Healthy Energy will install 100 total state-funded sensors. In June, the city also hired mobile monitoring company Aclima to drive sensor-equipped cars through Richmond. Aclima will share block-by-block air assessments in the coming months. Committee members hope these hyperlocal data will inform next year’s policies.
“Everyone’s always talking about Chevron, but Chevron is just one site,” said committee co-lead Randy Joseph, member engagement coordinator of the RYSE Youth Center. “I want to know a pollutant for every neighborhood.”
But UC Berkeley Professor of Chemistry Ronald Cohen, director of the BEACON air monitoring research project, has concerns about project expectations. Cohen, who is not involved in planning or implementing AB 617, supports the decision to gather more data before planning. But he said he fears that the state’s community-centric approach sidelines scientific expertise – and that participants aren’t equipped to identify or act on insights that data may contain.
“I worry as a scientist that people overestimate their ability to look at data and see something beyond what they already know,” he said. “We risk taking a year of sophisticated metrics to prove that water boils in 10 minutes.”
Photo by Sharon Beals.
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