City Hears of ‘Big Dig’ Resuming Amid Pandemic Concerns

Trucks are expected to begin hauling dirt and debris from the Devil’s Gate Dam once again Tuesday, with the controversial “Big Dig” project entering its second year of sediment removal, La Cañada Flintridge City Council members were informed this week.
La Cañada Flintridge 4 Healthy Air co-founder Elizabeth Krider gave the update and applauded councilmembers for their attentiveness to residents’ concerns about how diesel exhaust and dust from the trucks would affect air quality, though she cautioned that work is still needed to be done to ensure standards are enforced and followed.
The project, which aims to remove 1.7 million cubic yards of dirt from behind the dam at Hahamongna Watershed Park in phases across four years to increase flood protection and restore the habitat, sparked concerns from local residents after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved it in November 2017.
Krider explained that, with micro surfacing work on Oak Grove Drive finished in preparation for the vehicles, residents can expect 95 trucks to eventually make four or five round trips each, or up to 495 trips, per day until the end of November.
In their public comments, some residents expressed concerns that a worsened air quality from the Devil’s Gate Reservoir Restoration Project, along with the pollution from the nearby freeway, could potentially exacerbate effects of COVID-19, since the disease attacks the respiratory system.
Krider also mentioned that potential, citing a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health that suggests there is a statistical link between COVID-19 deaths and long-term air pollution. The study argues that even a slight increase in long-term exposure to pollution could result in major coronavirus-related health issues.
For example, the study said that if Manhattan had decreased its average particulate matter level by one microgram per cubic meter over the past 20 years, there would have been 248 fewer coronavirus deaths in the area by the end of April.
An email sent to an L.A. County Public Works communications manager regarding how the project’s work might be impacted by the pandemic was not returned by The Outlook’s press time Tuesday evening.
In her presentation, Krider also detailed that because of the potential impact on air quality, the project is also entering its second monitoring phase, which will involve checking trucks to make sure their engine sensors are working. A malfunctioning sensor can mean the “check engine” light doesn’t come on when it’s supposed to, or that the system to break down poisonous fumes isn’t triggered. UC Riverside researchers have been charged with monitoring the trucks at the site via the sensors.
The phase previously aimed to include tailpipe checks as well, but due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the technology needed to do so likely won’t be ready this year, Krider said after the meeting.
Researchers from UC Riverside will begin collecting information after the county lifts its social distancing order, possibly in June. Data is expected to be available two months after they finish collection.
Though students are not outside as often due to the statewide “Stay At Home” order, several residents, many of them parents of children attending local high schools, urged councilmembers to keep working on the issue.
“The Hillside School is on the front lines, as most of you saw last year,” said Robert Frank, who informed the council in a statement that he works at the Hillside School and Learning Center. “Between the exhaust and the dust, it became overwhelming at times. We washed down the facilities every weekend, only to find the same amount of dust and dirt left behind next weekend…
“I would suggest the city council continue to take an active role again this season by helping to partially fund monitoring of the local schools and neighborhoods.”
Krider claimed there are 18 schools and daycare centers within a half-mile of the project.
Krider also recommended the councilmembers share the cost of air quality monitoring system used by the La Cañada Unified School District since August. The system allows La Cañada High School — and nearby schools it shares data with — to have real-time information on pollution levels from the project and the nearby 210 Freeway, rather than having to rely on the Air Quality Management District, which is based in Burbank, for information.
“It’s something that’s benefiting not just LCHS students, it’s helping Hillside, preschools, the [Child Educational Center] and beyond, and it can continue to help with the partnership with the city,” Krider said. “To me, it’s just the right thing to do, to partner, since it’s a benefit and in your plan as a city to provide services that help a portion of it.”
The system costs LCUSD $60,000 a year, she said, adding that the cost has not been offset by L.A. County.
The county approved its own air quality monitoring plan for the project in April 2019, but Krider said it focuses more on complying with requirements rather than protecting the health of residents, particularly since the system doesn’t take into account pollution from the freeway. She also noted that data from the county is usually only reported five to 10 days after being collected.
“It’s unique for a school district to have air quality monitoring, but you’re not going to be the first one, or the last one, because of what’s happening statewide with devices like this being deployed in areas where lots of kids are next to lot of pollutants,” she said.
The sediment removal project is about 25% complete.

COUNCIL APPROVES NEW CITY TREE SPECIES
The City Council also approved three tree species to be added to LCF’s Official Map of City Trees, allowing them to be planted along designated roads.
The city will plant gold medallion and lemon scented tea trees along Green Lane and Princess Anne Road. Liquidambar trees will also be planted along Baptiste Way and Viro Road after a resident requested the species, according to Ken Roberts, facility and maintenance superintendent.
All new species will be planted to replace existing trees, Roberts said in his agenda report. The replacement plan comes after Southern California Edison offered to replace diseased, dying or missing liquidambars after completing its annual trimming of the trees in January 2020 and finding that many of them had been damaged after years of cutting around utility lines.
The new species were chosen after consultation with arborists and SCE representatives to make sure they would grow to a healthy distance from utility poles. The species are also already present in LCF.
Director of Public Works Patrick DeChellis said residents on those streets had been notified about the proposal, but none had expressed concerns about it.
However, resident John Thompson emailed the council a public statement about the measure, worrying that the roots of liquidamber trees would creep into streets and yards. He also said that the trees regularly dropped large limbs.
Roberts acknowledged that liquidambers have invasive roots, but said that there were some steps that could be taken to keep them from spreading into unwanted areas.
“Planting them not directly on the curb like many of the other liquidambers will help that situation, planting it deeper,” he said. “Of course, when we do plant in these vacant spots, we have an arborist on site who actually choses the best area.”
The city last amended its official tree map in 2016, to allow birch trees to be planted on Solliden Lane.

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