Debbie Darden says her west Fresno neighborhood is designed to fail. John Benavidez calls his unincorporated community Los Olvidados of West Park, meaning the forgotten ones.
Throughout the San Joaquin Valley, neighborhoods that are majority Black or Hispanic residents are over-burdened by polluting industries, and a lack of resources and services to mitigate the health risks.
New state data-based reports again confirm that these communities are among the most overburdened in the state. And, that race and historic redlining maps are closely associated with which neighborhoods now rank high or low for cumulative impacts of pollution and vulnerability.
The California Environmental Protection Agency last week released the fourth version of CalEnviroScreen, an environmental justice tool that analyzes measurements of pollution, health and socioeconomic conditions. The tool was developed help decision-makers prioritize resources for disadvantaged areas.
Neighborhood-level data like exposure to air pollution, proximity to hazardous waste sites, and health indicators like poverty and asthma rates are considered in the analysis. The scores of each category are added up, and then census tracts are ranked.
Of the top 10% highest scoring CalEnviroScreen census tracts in the state, people of color make up 91% of the population, according to Pollution and Prejudice, an August 2021 report by CalEPA. The racial division is visible in the data for Fresno, and Valleywide.
A west Fresno neighborhood ranks at the top of the list. Other San Joaquin Valley neighborhoods west of Highway 99 rank higher than 95% of other California census tracts.
Community leaders like Darden and Benavidez are working to change that. According to Darden, recovery is going to take “a drastic change.”
West Fresno: Burdened by environmental racism
The west Fresno neighborhood spliced by the Highway 99/41 interchange is ranked as the California census tract most burdened by environmental pollution. The community was once a thriving Black neighborhood.
Data show the census tract (6019001100) scores high for air pollution, lead in housing, contaminated drinking water and hazardous waste sites. Residents have high rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease and low birth weight. And, many residents live with incomes below the poverty level, are unemployed and housing burdened.
A new state report shows how disparities in Fresno and other cities correlate with redlining, a discriminatory government-sponsored practice in the 1930s that ranked neighborhoods by credit risk rating. The practice resulted in low-cost home loans to millions of white Americans and denials to people of color.
Using data from CalEnviroScreen, CalEPA analyzed the relationship between historically redlined neighborhoods and current environmental injustice. Researchers found a strong correlation, particularly in Fresno.
In all eight California cities analyzed, neighborhoods that were redlined in the 1930s have the highest average CalEnviroScreen scores today, the study found. At the same time, neighborhoods that were rated highly in the 1930s for investment are much more likely to have low levels of pollution burden and vulnerability.
The data bolsters what west Fresno residents have said for years: That current conditions reflect a history of decisions by government agencies.
Darden has lived in west Fresno for 55 years and has advocated bringing back schools, resource centers, grocery stores and developments for single-family homes to the area. She serves as chair of the Golden Westside Planning Committee.
“We’re designed to be separate from any other communities in Fresno,” Darden said. It’s still a Tale of Two Cities.
The highway “has torn right through the heart of our community at Kirk and Rose avenues. That freeway goes straight through that community. The family homes left, the only view they have now is the debris and weeds that the freeway brings,” Darden said.
She said city officials locate polluting industries in west Fresno and have failed to invest in cleanup until recent years. A Fresno Bee investigation found that patches of land contaminated by hazardous chemicals from dry cleaners and gas stations still sit empty and unused due to a lack of clean up and investment.
That trend continues. West Fresno today experiences air pollution from idling diesel trucks that travel to a high concentration of warehouses and distribution centers. Fresno city officials earlier this year quietly permitted a second Amazon fulfillment center in an already overburdened neighborhood, just south of the most pollution-burdened census tract in the state.
Darden said city officials have focused on the area for industrial development and to house low-income residents, instead of investing back in the community for residents. She said Amazon jobs have not brought great employment numbers to her community, rather workers drive the freeway ramp to get home elsewhere at the end of their shifts.
“I have to question what the city leaders value,” she said. “It’s obviously not to value people.”
Fresno mayor responds to CalEnviroScreen
Of the top ten ranked census tracts in the CalEnviroScreen tool, four are in the city of Fresno.
In response to the findings, Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer told The Fresno Bee that change “won’t happen overnight.”
“I work every day to improve the health and well-being of every person who calls Fresno home. I am paying particular attention to bettering the quality of life for the residents of the southern parts of our city,” Dyer said in an email. “Correcting decades of intentional and unintentional neglect and disrepair won’t happen overnight.”
He said he’s been mayor for less than a year, “but I am confident that working together with the city council we are making significant progress and I look forward to accelerating our investments in south Fresno when we allocate American Rescue Plan funds and other resources.”
Darden said she is aware that change doesn’t happen overnight. “We’re talking about a change in west Fresno that’s needed to change for decades.”
“I hear what he’s saying. And, although he’s been mayor for a short period of time, let’s keep in mind that he’s been a police officer in Fresno for 30 years,” Darden said in a phone interview. “He is well aware of the environment. He’s seen what west Fresno is diminished to.”
West Park: Working for justice in a rural ag town
It’s a similar story across the San Joaquin Valley. Discriminatory government decisions result in Black and brown communities bearing the brunt of environmental pollution, while high rates of severe poverty make residents more vulnerable to health risks. Just look at drinking water.
Toxic drinking water in rural Valley communities can be traced back to a history of racist policies that left historic Black colonies and Latino communities without proper water infrastructure. Now, agricultural runoff from fertilizer and manure leaches into groundwater, contributing to some of the highest levels of nitrate pollution in community water systems in the country.
This new version of CalEnviroScreen includes data about feedlots and dairies as a marker of risk to groundwater in neighboring communities.
Benavidez said he’s not surprised that CalEnviroScreen ranks his neighborhood of West Park as more pollution-burdened and vulnerable than 95% of California’s census tracts.
He raised his children there. Now his grandchildren and great-grandchildren live there too.
“It’s not a very large community, but it’s in the middle of Ag country. Because we have a lot of almond orchards around here, we get a lot of things that are sprayed in the air,” Benavidez said. “Our school is in the middle of the same thing.”
The neighborhood is just outside the Fresno city limits, yet sidewalks and streetlights are rare and residents have no sewer service. Residents rely on septic systems that can add even more nitrates to the groundwater, which some homes still rely on for drinking water.
The neighborhood ranks high for fine particulate matter in the air, pesticide exposure and contaminated drinking water, as well as high rates of poverty, unemployment, asthma, low birth weight and cardiovascular disease.
A group of residents, including Benavidez, started a community group to advocate for more infrastructure and resources to come to the community. They call themselves Los Olvidados of West Park, which translates to the forgotten ones.
“We took that up because in the 50-plus years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen any real changes here in our little section of the world as far as any improvements.”