June 9, 2007
Salt Lake Tribune
By Patty Henetz
Environmental advocates, doctors and families who want to force regional planners to make public transit part of the west-side Mountain View Corridor freeway project are brandishing a powerful weapon: Children’s health.
A new Wasatch Front long-range plan shows the eight-lane freeway would follow 5800 West in Salt Lake County and cut between Hunter High and Whittier Elementary in West Valley City. Traffic could put the students and others in schools and homes within 500 to 1,000 meters of the road – in perilous range of concentrated toxic substances thrown off by passing vehicles, according to recent health studies.
That should be enough to cause the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) and the Wasatch Front Regional Council to make a greater effort to reduce traffic with mass transit before laying asphalt, said Utah Sierra Club spokesman Marc Heileson. If it isn’t, he said, the Sierra Club may turn to the courts, using a 2005 settlement in a lawsuit over highway-related health hazards in Nevada as a precedent.
The organization’s first legal move, though, will be to voice its arguments during the October public comment period for the Mountain View draft environmental impact statement. And the immediate next step will be to saturate affected neighborhoods with information-toting activists.
On June 23, the Sierra Club will organize volunteers to go door to door in the schools’neighborhoods to inform residents of the Mountain View Corridor plans and the lack of financial commitment to transit.
Along with members of Utahns for Better Transportation, Physicians for a Healthy Environment and Utah Moms for Clean Air, the volunteers also will tell neighbors about the findings of a study released in January that showed children living near a major roadway can suffer underdeveloped lungs and have lifelong respiratory illnesses.
“The children at Hunter High are very safe now. But if they get an eight-lane freeway behind their football field, they will be in danger,” Heileson said. “We’re not trying to be alarmist. We’re just saying this is reality.”
The health study, published in the professional medical journal The Lancet, reported a 13-year project that followed two groups of Southern California fourth-graders from age 10 to 18, the age when lung development is complete. A group of medical researchers at the University of Southern California wrote the study with assistance from the California Air Resources Board, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The researchers determined that children who lived within 1,500 meters of a major roadway were exposed to soot, ultrafine particulates, nitrogen dioxide and other exhaust pollutants. The most serious respiratory effects were found in children within 500 meters of the freeways.
Whittier Elementary, Hillside Elementary and Hunter High will be within 500 meters of the Mountain View Corridor. Hunter Junior High, Carl Sandburg Elementary and Hunter Elementary will be within 1,000 meters.
“We’re just worried about creating a cancer corridor,” said Utah Moms spokeswoman Cherise Udell.
That was the fear underlying the Sierra Club action in Nevada. The lawsuit alleged the government disregarded the possibility of a heightened cancer risk for those living and going to school near a major highway.
In July 2004, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stopped construction on a $160 million piece of a $450 million project to widen U.S. 95 northwest of the Las Vegas Strip, the most congested corridor in the state. A year later, the Sierra Club withdrew its appeal in the face of strong public support for the project.
In return, the Federal Highway Administration and the Nevada Department of Transportation agreed to install pollution-monitoring and air-filtration systems at three schools next to U.S. 95, relocated three portable buildings and a kindergarten playground and allocated $1 million to retrofit buses to reduce diesel emissions.
Sierra Club attorney Joanne Spalding originally sought a mandate for light rail or other pollution-reduction options. The attempt failed because projected ridership models appeared not to justify the expenditure for trains. Still, the Nevada settlement raised awareness of the health threats – especially to children – that come from being near a freeway, she said.
The long-range plan for the Mountain View Corridor includes bus rapid transit, a streetcar or light rail on 5600 West, said Wasatch Front Regional Council Executive Director Chuck Chappell. But the $32 million needed to buy the dedicated transit lane has yet to be approved for allocation, and there are no plans for funding the actual transit mode.
Nor have concentrated mobile toxics that accompany highways entered discussions between the Granite School District and UDOT during multiple meetings Mountain View Corridor project director Teri Newell said UDOT has had with district officials.
“They are aware of where the corridor is, and they certainly know where their schools are,” she said. “We have not heard the same concerns that were heard on U.S. 95.”
Rather, she said, the district was mostly concerned about making sure Mountain View left enough room for outdoor athletic fields. She said her most recent discussion was with David Gourley, Granite’s assistant superintendent, on March 31, 2006.
Granite spokesman Randy Ripplinger said Gourley was out of town Friday and unavailable for comment. Ripplinger said that as far as he knew, the discussions with UDOT were confined to real estate.
But Heileson said Newell ought to be aware of the health issues. He gave her a copy of The Lancet article when the two participated in a Westminster College panel discussion a month and a half ago.