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Pablo Castaneda stands in front of his Barrio Logan home on Nov. 1, 2021. Castaneda had no knowledge his home fell within a higher cancer risk zone due to air pollution from nearby industries like NASSCO. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Pablo Castaneda stared at a copy of a letter from the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company, known as NASSCO and located a few blocks from his Barrio Logan home, notifying him that the diesel exhaust from the nearby plant may increase his family’s risk of cancer.  

Castaneda, whose 7-year-old son already suffers from asthma, doesn’t remember getting that December letter in the mail. But reading a copy provided by a reporter, wondered aloud, “What is the purpose of this letter? Are they trying to make people decide whether to stay or leave?” 

Industries in San Diego that emit a certain level of carcinogenic air pollution are required to issue these letters to nearby residents every few years. For decades, companies have not been required by the regional air pollution regulator to reduce toxic air pollution beyond issuing the letters. 

That’s because San Diego allows top air-polluting industries to spew cancer-causing toxins at a rate much higher than most of California. But now, the region’s revamped air pollution regulator wants to cut that rate tenfold.  

As it’s written now in San Diego, the Toxic Air Contaminant Health Risks threshold, known as Rule 1210, doesn’t require industries to reduce their toxic air pollution unless a facility increases the chances of contracting cancer above 100 in one million. That risk level means that if one million people are continuously exposed to the same amount of pollution over 30 years, it’s likely 100 people would develop cancer on top of all the other risks they face. (That’s the statistical probability, however many factors including distance a person lives from a polluter, how much time they spend at home and weather patterns affect true risk.) 

The NASSCO shipyard can be seen behind a home on Boston Avenue in Barrio Logan on Nov. 1, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Under new leadership, San Diego’s Air Pollution Control District, charged with writing and enforcing policies that protect public health, wants to require industries to clean up their act and reduce cancer risk levels to 10 in one million. The district’s board votes Nov. 4 to do just that, but many industries are already pushing back.  

In an August letter to the district, the U.S. Navy argued the proposed air pollution changes were so restrictive that it might affect critical operations “that support national security and defense.” 

Among other industries, the shipbuilder NASSCO submitted a letter calling the proposed change “incredibly drastic” for which the district provided “little, if any, meaningful justification.” NASSCO asked the district to slow down the rule change process and study the costs industries would face in tamping-down air pollutants. NASSCO did not respond to a request for comment.  

The current standard “is very inefficient for the region because it doesn’t apply to anybody in San Diego County,” said Mahiany Luther, deputy director of the San Diego County Pollution Control District.  

What she means is, out of the thousands of air-polluting facilities the district monitors, virtually none of them have polluted enough to be regulated. That may sound like a good thing, but it really means industries are still causing higher elevated cancer risks to residents and workers but are not required to make changes. 

According to NASSCO’s latest health risk assessment, the shipbuilder’s emissions create a cancer risk of 53 in one million. That’s one of the highest rates in the region according to a list of facilities tracked by the district. Specifically, the shipbuilder emits cancer-causing pollutants in the form of heavy particles from diesel exhaust and hexavalent chromium, arsenic, nickel and manganese – all from the business of welding, painting, blasting and using fossil fuels in the engines of port cranes, for example. 

Right now, the main thing San Diego companies have to do is notify the public if their air pollution poses a cancer risk of 10 in one million or more. But notification amounts to a letter in the mail once every few years, like Castaneda’s, when industries are required to take a new inventory of the toxins they emit. 

“It’s more offensive that the public (is) notified if their cancer risk was significant, but in the next breath tell them we’re not going to do anything about it until it gets worse,” said Diane Takvorian, executive director of the Environmental Health Coalition, which has been fighting for the change to Rule 1210 and better air quality, especially in neighborhoods next to San Diego’s industrial port.  

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s upper limit of allowable cancer risk is 1 in 10,000, which is actually the same as San Diego’s 100 in one million standard. That’s a level public-health experts widely agree is too high, according to recent reporting on toxic air pollution by ProPublica. Even South Coast’s Air Pollution Control District, which includes the busy Port of Long Beach, has tougher standards, requiring industries make changes when its operations pose a cancer risk of 25 in one million. 

The proposed changes would shorten the timeframe that industries have to notify the public, require a public meeting and submit plans to reduce their risk. If an industry isn’t able to bring down the cancer risk level in five years, they could get a three-year extension as long as they prove they’ve tried all technically feasible ways of reducing toxins and installed the best available technologies. If the businesses still can’t meet those requirements, they face fines.  

So far, the district identified at least seven businesses that would be required to make changes, should the proposed rule update pass.  

San Diego’s cancer risk threshold has remained the same since the rule went into effect over 30 years ago.  

The board that governs the San Diego Air Pollution Control District decides the policies that protect public health. But for decades, the county Board of Supervisors served as the district’s governing board and didn’t change the toxic air pollution rule.  

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said he proposed a stricter cancer risk rule when he joined the board under the old regime in 2019. 

Pablo Castaneda reads a letter from NASSCO warning nearby residents of the higher cancer risks due to air pollution on Nov. 1 , 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“They weren’t quite sure how to docket (put something on the agenda) because nobody had brought anything forward for the Air Pollution Control District to do,” Fletcher said. “It was a board that proactively didn’t think about issues of air quality. The Air Pollution Control Board was something that convened occasionally without much thought or intentionality around what they were doing.” 

It took state legislation, spearheaded by San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, then in the assembly, to force that board to expand and diversify beyond five elected county supervisors. Now the board has 11 members, including city council members, advocates and members of the public with public health, scientific or technical expertise on air pollution.  

 “This was our first initiative to say, ‘Hey we care about air quality, and it’s really time we start aligning San Diego with the rest of California,’” Fletcher said.  

Castaneda, whose son has since recovered from his most serious asthma symptoms, spent a large part of his 11-year history in the Barrio Logan area fighting another kind of air pollution, the diesel-guzzling trucks that use his street as a route between the port and the interstate. He recalled once discovering the plywood laid to fix his roof had turned black after months of exposure to air pollution.  

Now, a sign on his street officially bans trucks over five tons. But strain overcame Castaneda’s face while he finished reading the news that his family still lives in a zone prone to higher air pollution risks being so close to NASSCO.  

“Even if it affects one person, it counts,” Castaneda said. “Fifty-three (in one million), that’s a lot. I don’t want any of my relatives to have cancer because of that.” 

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