Many opponents of the now-approved Western Bypass of U.S. 29 want an upcoming environmental review of the project to take a fresh look at how the four-lane highway would affect the health of students attending several schools along the right of way.
Numerous residents have both raised and dismissed environmental health concerns related to the bypass during public hearings this month.
While not addressed by Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization prior to its 3-2 vote to authorize the 6.2-mile road Wednesday, the matter is expected to be closely scrutinized as part of the road’s final design and construction.
“Current information, based on relatively recent studies, shows that children whose homes and schools are close to highways have an increased long-term incidents of respiratory disorders and learning problems,” said Albemarle County resident Beth Kuhn at the July 20 meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board.
An environmental impact statement approved by the Federal Highways Administration in 1993 evaluated the road’s path close to Albemarle High School, Jack Jouett Middle School and Mary Greer Elementary School.
However, the document claimed the road “would not directly impact any of these schools” even though the road would be between 600 feet and 1,200 feet from two of the schools.
A supplemental environmental impact statement conducted in 2002 used the same language. Since then, Agnor-Hurt Elementary has opened on Berkmar Drive close to the bypass route. The southern terminus will also encompass more land surrounding St. Anne’s-Belfield School.
Dr. Charles Battig, a retired anesthesiologist and supporter of the bypass, said “the danger is in the dose.”
“Yes, there are lots of nasty compounds out in the environment, a lot of them happen to be natural,” said Battig to the MPO Wednesday following several speakers who outlined health concerns. “The fact that you can name 100 different chemicals in your body doesn’t mean they are poisonous.”
Dr. Thomas Platt-Millls heads the division of allergy and immunology at the University of Virginia’s Department of Medicine. He said scientists have a better understanding now of how air pollution can lead to asthma and other respiratory ailments.
“Evidence that having children attending schools close to highways has increased really considerably over the last 10 years,” Platt-Mills said. “The data is clear that this is a real risk and it shouldn’t be done without thinking about it.”
Kuhn and others appealed to the CTB to delay its vote until more research could be conducted.
“Currently about 4,000 children attend these schools,” Kuhn said. “Many of these students will pass their entire K-12 education in proximity to the road.”
Cooper Walmsley, who works in VDOT”s environment review section, told the CTB he expects the Federal Highway Administration to ask for a re-evaluation before the project can go to construction.
“We have an environmental approval but so much time has passed that we think FHWA will want an environmental assessment,” Walmsley said. “The purpose will be to decide if another impact statement is necessary.”
Doug Hecox, a press officer with the Federal Highway Administration, said environmental impact statements are only valid for three years if no major steps to advance the highway project have occurred. After that time, a written re-evaluation of the EIS is needed.
“An EIS for this project was completed and signed, and a supplemental EIS signed in 2003,” Hecox said. “We have to go back and re-evaluate in writing that both the EIS and supplemental EIS remain valid or if there have been changes in the area, changes in the neighborhoods and changes in traffic patterns.”
Hecox said the re-evaluation will take a look at whether there is new evidence to make sure effective mitigations are in place and the project is as well planned as possible.
Scott Vande Pol, a University of Virginia pathologist who lives on Lambs Road, said the environmental review must take into account the effect of air pollution on school children.
“Previous environmental assessments have not addressed this issue,” Vande Pol said. “Impact statements only address what they are mandated to address. So, for example, they must address endangered species, farm land use and historic properties. But they do not address children’s health.”
Supervisor Rodney L. Thomas, who voted in favor of the road as one of Albemarle’s MPO representatives, said he will push for the school issues to be evaluated as part of the project’s environmental assessment.
“I will be a supporter of sound barriers to lessen the impact on the schools and the properties,” Thomas said.