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In Our View: Industrial pollution has no place in school zone

The Columbian
Published: March 27, 2024, 6:03am

Discord in Snohomish County calls to mind a Clark County controversy from last year. It also renews questions about the impact of industrial pollution near residential areas and schools.

A little more than a year ago, North Dakota-based Knife River Corp. announced plans to build and operate a concrete batch plant in unincorporated Clark County’s Sunnyside neighborhood. Vociferous complaints from inhabitants of nearby residential neighborhoods led the company to scuttle the proposal.

The plant was scheduled to work around the clock, with the operation drawing approximately 200 heavy-duty trucks a day. Concerns about air pollution and noise pollution appear to be well-founded; it’s hard to imagine that company executives would welcome a similar plant within 200 feet of their homes.

Meanwhile, the proposed plant would have been less than three-quarters of a mile from Sunset Elementary School in one direction and Seton Catholic High School in another. And that is what generates more disconcerting comparisons with an issue near Everett.

There, a gravel yard has been operating next to an elementary school. The distribution center opened a year ago without obtaining permits or undergoing environmental reviews. According to The Seattle Times, school leaders are “urging the county to address complaints from teachers, students and parents about disruptive noise, truck exhaust and potentially unhealthy dust.”

Now, as Snohomish County officials consider a permit application, state leaders have taken the rare step of interjecting.

“The Applicant has demonstrated that the County should expect continued non-compliance, intransigence and disregard of neighboring communities,” state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office wrote to county officials.

In a separate letter, officials from the state Department of Health wrote: “The most certain way to avoid health harms to this community and the children of Fairmount Elementary School and Pathfinder Kindergarten is for this project to operate elsewhere, not adjacent to a property with a school, child care center or other sensitive population.”

The issue reflects a vast change that has Americans viewing environmental concerns in holistic terms. For generations, particularly in urban areas, there was rarely a second thought given to siting a freeway next to a school.

As one study available from the National Library of Medicine says: “Long-term exposure to traffic pollution has been associated with adverse health outcomes in children and adolescents. A significant number of schools may be located near major roadways, potentially exposing millions of children to high levels of traffic pollution.”

Another study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found: “Children who move to a school downwind of a major highway have lower test scores and a higher likelihood of behavioral incidents and missing school than when those same children attended schools with similar characteristics that were not downwind of a major highway.”

To summarize: The location of a school can have an impact on academic performance and the long-term health of students. And industrial operations can have similar impacts on residential neighborhoods. Even if air pollution is not readily visible, it can have an effect.

Attention to those facts as cities, counties and school districts consider zoning and construction is a relatively recent development. And our communities and residents are better off because of it.