Local school boards are being asked to support an effort to get a health study done on a major freeway project expected to impact communities from Long Beach to East Los Angeles.
Environmental justice groups say a project to address congestion and safety issues on the aging I-710 Freeway will impact the health of students going to several schools in the Los Angeles Unified, Montebello Unified and Long Beach Unified districts.
The southern portion of the I-710 Freeway where the project is being proposed is a major arterial for trucks making deliveries between the Long Beach and Los Angeles Ports and distribution facilities rail yards all the way up to East Los Angeles.
Isella Ramirez, who heads up the Commerce-based East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, spoke at a recent Montebello Unified School District meeting.
She asked that the school board support a “health impact assessment” study, which goes further than environmental impact studies in identifying ways a planned project would affect people’s health.
An environmental impact study may identify the level of pollution in an area, whereas a health impact study will describe what kinds of diseases or other health risks would result from the pollution, Ramirez explained.
Several schools in the district, including Bell Gardens Elementary, Bell Gardens Intermediate, and Bandini Elementary in Commerce are located close to the I-710 Freeway.
Asthma is the top reason students miss school, Ramirez told the school board. She also pointed to a map showing many schools with low API scores are located close to freeways.
“Health needs to be an overriding consideration,” she told the board. “We feel that any change to the I-710 should be viewed as an opportunity for repair, not to make it worse.”
Ramirez says health impact assessment studies have already been used successfully in the U.S. and around the world. She gave the example of a health impact assessment done on a road project in Seattle, WA that resulted in a continuous carpool lane, wider shoulders, and a bicycle and pedestrian path.
Ramirez says the I-710 Freeway project committee, consisting of community representatives and funding partners, voted to recommend the Health Impact Assessment, but that Caltrans, which has ultimate say on whether the study will go forward, has not responded to the request.
According officials of the project’s lead agency, Metro, their “project committee voted to include the HIA,” and says “Caltrans will decide whether or not to include once the studies have been completed.”
The groups are requesting the health study to be conducted along with the environmental impact study due at the end of the year or in early 2012, before the project starts.
School board member Gerri Guzman expressed support for the study. When she toured Bell Gardens schools, she noticed “right in our own backyards, we have freeways,” she says.
Board President Ed Chau asked that Ramirez work with district staff on language for the resolution.
Ramirez said they are outreaching to school districts because “we need to make sure this project is done right the first time around,” she said.
Ramirez’s group is part of the Coalition of Environmental Health and Justice, which also includes the Long Beach Alliance for Children With Asthma, the Southeast Los Angeles-based Communities for a Better Environment, the Maywood-based Comite Pro Uno, and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Communities located in the I-710 Freeway project area include Commerce, Vernon, Maywood, Bell, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, South Gate, Lynwood, Paramount, Compton, Carson, Downey, Signal Hill, Wilmington, and Long Beach.
The I-710 project is a joint effort by Metro, Caltrans, Gateway Cities Council of Governments, the I-5 Consortium Joint Powers Authority, the Port of Long Beach, the Port of Los Angeles, and the Southern California Association of Governments.