California EPA puts West Fresno atop cities with high health risks

Fresno BeeMarch 17, 2013 

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Activist Mary Curry of Concerned Citizens of West Fresno walks in the neighborhood near the Darling International rendering plant this month.

CRAIG KOHLRUSS — Fresno Bee

From the Hyde Park mound in West Fresno, you can see the city landscape quickly go from residential to industrial park. You can smell it, too.

Across the street, there is an animal rendering plant, a poultry facility, a meat distributor and a PG&E substation. The Hyde Park mound itself is a converted garbage landfill.

But there is more: high asthma rates, widespread poverty and low birth weights that scientists link to dirty air, chemical exposures and a host of other problems.

The California Environmental Protection Agency says people in West Fresno live with higher health risks than anyone in California – higher than any part of Los Angeles, Oakland or any place else you can name.

Life expectancy in West Fresno is more than 20 years lower than in northeast Fresno, according to a 2012 study done by a team of researchers including the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State.

West Fresno and many parts of the Central Valley soon will be known as the riskiest places in California to live. Financial help appears to be headed there, but controversy surrounds it.

The state EPA is expected to designate the most environmentally burdened areas in the next few weeks. West Fresno is at the top of list, and several other Valley ZIP codes are not far behind.

The state EPA's draft documents show the Valley has nine of the 12 worst places in California, including four in Fresno County and three in Stockton. The map of California's worst 10 percent shows mostly Valley ZIP codes.

The state's designations will be part of a program called California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool, or CalEnviroScreen.

But businesses and industries worry that the science is vague and might be misused by government agencies. State leaders say the tool is not intended to replace project analysis, laws or planning.

The tool will fulfill part of the 2006 state greenhouse gas law, Senate Bill 535, by identifying such high-risk places, known as disadvantaged communities. Funds will be raised from auctions of greenhouse gas allowances for California companies. Disadvantaged communities will be favored to get that money.

Mary Curry of the activist group Concerned Citizens of West Fresno said it is time. "We ask for help," she said. "Nobody has been listening."

Jonathan London of the University of California, Davis, worked on a 2011 study about Valley pollution and health risks, including West Fresno and the Kings County community of Kettleman City, which is just a few miles from a hazardous waste landfill.

"People with low income and people of color are disproportionately located in those places with high concentrations of factors that can lead to poor health conditions," he said.

So if you live in West Fresno, will you really die younger? Will you actually get asthma, cancer, heart disease or other serious health problems?

The science is not intended to make such individual predictions, says John Capitman, executive director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute. It is not a health assessment, which goes into far more depth and history of a patient.

"I'm looking at the big shape of the iceberg," he said, "not little pieces of it."

In his 2012 "Place Matters" study, Capitman said he calculated mortality rates in each Valley ZIP code. He also included such details as income, ethnicity, education and pollution exposure.

But what if some aspect of lifestyle, such as diet, could account for the early mortality?

"We saw communities of color, immigrants, low income, high exposure to air pollution, clusters along Highway 99, asthma," he said. "So are they all eating the wrong things? I don't think so."

Life expectancy in West Fresno's ZIP code is 69 years or less, according to Capitman's study. Life expectancy in the more affluent Woodward Park ZIP code is up to 90.

In the state's CalEnviroScreen document, the contrasts between the two are just as striking. The pollution burden in West Fresno is rated more than three times higher.

The populations are near the same size — 41,087 in West Fresno and 45,191 in Woodward Park, the state EPA shows. But there are vast differences in education, birth weights, poverty, ethnicity and asthma rates.

One dramatic example of the differences: pesticide applications. Located in an urban-farming transition area, West Fresno ranks in the 90th percentile for such chemicals statewide. Amid rows of suburban homes around northeast Fresno, the Woodward Park ZIP code ranks in the 23rd percentile.

There are objections and doubts about the way the state is presenting this information, especially about pesticides.

The California Farm Bureau Federation last month wrote a letter to the state EPA, saying the screening tool makes it look as though pesticide use equates to 100 percent exposure.

"These pesticides have the strictest application and use regulations (buffer zones, worker safety clothing requirements, restricted entry intervals, etc.) of any pesticide applications nationwide," wrote Cynthia Cory, the Farm Bureau group's director of environmental affairs.

But the tool is intended only as a screening device, said John Faust, of the state EPA's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

The EPA is not assessing blame or indicating the level of exposure, he said.

The agency does not have complete information on exposures to such chemicals, Faust said. But the screening is important because it shows where people might be vulnerable to such chemicals.

"We're finding out where people use chemicals as a way to get at the question of where exposures are taking place," Faust said.

Mary Curry said everyone in West Fresno knows someone in the community with asthma. She has it. The CalEnviroScreen draft document shows West Fresno's emergency room visits for asthma rank in the 98th percentile – among the highest in the state.

Curry said the Concerned Citizens of West Fresno will target the area's health risks and an animal rendering plant is at the top of the list.

The plant on West Belgravia Avenue, owned by Texas-based Darling International Inc., has operated for nearly 60 years.

The company has spent millions of dollars in the last decade upgrading its operation.

But the plant is not among the four companies identified in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Program for the 93706 ZIP code.

Still, Curry said the stench of the Darling rendering plant makes life miserable. Ask any West Fresnan who has asthma, she said. "The wind knows no boundaries."

The 81-year-old Curry is no stranger to public battles. In 1985, she was the first African American woman elected to the Fresno Unified School District board before being recalled in 1990 during her second term.

She and the Concerned Citizens of West Fresno sued the city of Fresno last year over the rendering plant. The group says the owners should apply for a conditional-use permit to process the 850,000 pounds of animal carcasses and animal parts into such products as poultry feed and tallow.

A hearing is scheduled May 21 in Fresno Superior Court.

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