Barrio Logan NASSCO
A residential house along Boston Avenue in Barrio Logan overlooking the NASSCO shipyard on Nov. 1, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

This post originally appeared in the Nov. 5 Morning Report. Subscribe to the Morning Report here.

No more will San Diego permit air-polluting industries to spew cancer-causing toxins at a rate much higher than most of California. 

For decades, industries could pollute enough that the risk of contracting cancer to people living nearby was 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.)

But on Thursday, the board governing the region’s air pollution regulator — the San Diego Air Pollution Control District — voted unanimously to change that rule and force industries to cut their pollution ten fold, so cancer risks were 10 in one million or less.

That means the dozens of industries with highest cancer risks will have to make investments and upgrade technologies to clean up their operations. Industries have a five-year window to do so, but they can get multiple three-year extensions (with no clear limit) under the new rule as long as they retrofit the businesses’ technologies to the best available kind, under the updated rule.

That was one of the biggest points of contention between environmental advocates and industry: how much time businesses could potentially take to clean up their operations.

Local air pollution advocates, namely the Environmental Health Coalition, argued against permitting so many extensions calling for a hard stop at 10 years. Other extensions could “prolong excessive emissions for decades,” said Dianne Takvorian, executive director of the coalition. 

Multiple industries spoke against that suggestion, namely General Dynamic’s National Steel and Shipbuilding Company, known as NASSCO. Sara Giobbi, manager of environmental engineering from NASSCO, said the company would support the plan that was eventually approved by the board.

“Unless there are significant technological advances, and we’re not aware of any of them coming, it will be difficult for us to meet this standard,” Giobbi said of the new 10 in one million cancer risk limit. The latest assessment of NASSCO showed the portside business’ cancer risk at 53 in one million.

Giobbi also argued that beyond the cancer risk standard in question, other assessments of industry health risks have grown more conservative and difficult to meet.

“For businesses, this makes planning for the future extremely challenging,” she said. 

Jack Monger, CEO of the Coronado-based Industrial Environmental Association, said his organization didn’t oppose updating Rule 1210. 

“Nor do we oppose reducing cancer risk for residents near industrial facilities,” Monger said. “For IEA it has always been about how we go about this … with the least impact on jobs and operations. That’s a balance that ensures clean air and economic prosperity.”

In a letter submitted to the board before the vote, the association asked the cancer risk threshold be cut in half to start — from 100 to 50 in one million cancer risk — and reach 10 in one million after a number of years. 

A member of the public who called into the meeting, Maria Gomez, said she recently bought a house near a San Diego-area concrete mixing business. She argued that a cancer risk of even 10 in one million is too high. 

“By giving them the threshold of 10 in one million, you’re able to emit emissions that raise cancer risk 9.9 times greater than what is considered clean air,” she said. “I hate to make it personal, but clean air is personal.” 

Air Pollution Control District Member and La Mesa City Councilman Jack Shu echoed Gomez’s concerns saying he’d like industries to bring down their cancer risk to zero.

“It is embarrassing to be in an area of California that allows air pollution to be greater than other parts of California when we have the means and ability to clean that air,” he said. 

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