City may adjust environmental review process

In order to meet recently updated air quality guidelines to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, Berkeley may significantly adjust its environmental review process.

At a Thursday meeting of the city’s Community Environmental Advisory Commission, commission members discussed different ways of meeting the May 2011 updated guidelines, which set renewed thresholds for the impact of pollutants on “sensitive receptors” — community members particularly susceptible to poor air quality, like the elderly and children.

Under CEQA, which was passed in 1970, an Environmental Impact Report is required for projects that could have a significant impact on the environment. The updated thresholds, adopted by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, help determine whether there is a significant impact present.

Currently, developers meet these requirements individually. However, the commission discussed the creation of a Community Risk Reduction Plan — a comprehensive process that could standardize air quality analysis across a whole section of the city at once, as opposed to on a case-by-case basis.

Creating such a plan would entail “robust public participation in developing goals and strategies of the plan,” according to a commission report, as well as thorough organization of the steps required to reduce emissions and risk across the area.

But new sources of emissions such as factories would still have to go through the process separate from a community plan, according to commission chair Brian McDonald.

“It’s not giving a green light for new industry to come in and build and just go — they still have to do CEQA,” McDonald said at the meeting.

Additionally, a community plan may be seen as not environmentally friendly, said commission secretary Nabil Al-Hadithy at the meeting.

“The reason why they would say that is because the work is done in advance — the risk analysis is done before,” he said at the meeting.

While the commission is considering ways for the city to adjust the way it operates under CEQA, similar guidelines have been around for at least the last decade.

A 1999 set of guidelines from the air district sets thresholds of significance for toxic air contaminants, stating that a significant impact is present in projects that expose sensitive community members to those contaminants.

“Proposed development projects that have the potential to expose the public to toxic air contaminants in excess of the following thresholds would be considered to have a significant air quality impact,” the guidelines state.

But this year’s guidelines place an equally strong emphasis on fine particulate matter. McDonald noted that the air district’s guidelines are clearer now.

The commission did not take any action at its Thursday meeting, but once it does, its recommendation will eventually be considered by the Berkeley City Council.

J.D. Morris is the lead environment reporter.