California Attorney General Rob Bonta, left, gathers for photos after listening to environmental justice issues in Fresno County with local organizations and community leaders Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022 in Fresno. Credit: Eric Paul Zamora / Fresno Bee

What's at stake?

South Fresno residents and community advocates say for decades they've opposed industrial development in their neighborhoods, citing chronic health and environmental concerns. They say city and county leaders don't listen to their concerns, which is why they've turned to the state attorney general for support.

California’s top law official met with southcentral Fresno residents Tuesday to discuss their environmental concerns — and promised to use his office to help them create healthier communities.

“Your fight is my fight,” said California Attorney General Rob Bonta to a group of primarily Latina women and women of color from the unincorporated Fresno County community of Calwa, southeast Fresno, and rural parts of west Fresno County.

Representatives from nonprofit groups Friends of Calwa, Fresno Building Healthy Communities, Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, Central California Environmental Justice Network, and Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, were also among those present in the meeting held at the Friends of Calwa community center.

The group raised a number of environmental and health concerns during the hour-long meeting with Bonta, which was conducted in both English and Spanish. Some of the main concerns raised were: the public health impact of exposure to industrial and agricultural pollution, especially preventable diseases, the need for more pedestrian-safe roads, concerns about industrial growth in the area without community input, to the need for improved water quality and infrastructure in rural communities, and more.

“This is what racism looks like today,” said Ivanka Saunders, a policy advocate with Leadership Counsel of Justice and Accountability.

Racism is no longer the overt discrimination of the 1960s, Saunders said, but rather, it looks like environmental racism associated with the disregard for the health and well-being of communities of color.

“Everything that everyone is speaking of speaks directly to human and civil rights,” she said.

Sandra Celedon, president and chief executive office of Fresno Building Healthy Communities, said residents are tired of not being heard at the local level, which is why she said Bonta’s visit was so important.

“Residents in Calwa, Malaga, and southcentral Fresno have been loud and clear for years, for decades that we don’t want to serve as the city’s, the county’s or the state’s dumping ground,” Celedon said. “It’s time for those folks that are in a decision making authority…to listen to community and to work with community, because that’s the only way that we’re all going to thrive.”

While Bonta didn’t make a specific commitment to any of the issues raised in the discussion, he pledged to use the “force and strength and power” of his office to their aid.

The meeting comes nearly six months after Bonta and deputy attorneys general Robert Swanson and Mari Mayeda penned a 9-page letter to the Fresno County Department of Public Works and Planning saying its draft General Plan “likely” violated environmental and housing laws.

Fresno County officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Dolores Diaz expresses her concerns to California Attorney General Rob Bonta as he listened to environmental justice issues in Fresno County with local organizations and community leaders Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022 in Fresno. Photo credit: Eric Paul Zamora / FRESNO BEE

Air pollution you can ‘feel in your body’

Queen Naomi Alcantar, 17, grew up in the Calwa neighborhood. Alcantar shed tears as she told the attorney general how Calwa has gotten worse over the years.

“Calwa was known to be a place where everyone got along,” she said, describing kids playing outside and people greeting one another on the streets. “Now you can’t even go outside,” she said, citing poor air quality, damaged streets and dangerous local traffic.

According to CalEnviroscreen, a state mapping tool used to identify California communities that are most affected by many sources of pollution, Calwa ranks in the 99th percentile, making it one of the most pollution-burdened census tracts in California.

“Not only do you see air pollution,” Alcantar said, “you can feel it inside your body. It’s dirty.”

As a result of the exposure to particulate matter pollution, toxic releases, clean-up sites, groundwater threats, hazardous waste, and solid waste, its residents suffer from increased risk of asthma, cardiovascular disease, and other health burdens.

Calwa ranks in the 94th percentile for asthma, a chronic lung disease that increases an individual’s sensitivity to pollutants. Particulate matter from diesel engines, for example, has been shown to exacerbate asthma in children, according to a report by the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment and the California Environmental Protection Agency.

The California Air Resources Board has designated southcentral Fresno, including Malaga and Calwa, as “highest priority locations” for community air monitoring stations. The majority Latino communities experience high rates of poverty.

“The fact that Calwa is the number two most polluted neighborhood in the entire state of California didn’t happen by accident, it was planned that way,” said Celedon of Fresno BHC. “If we planned for toxicity, we can also un-plan for it.”

Bonta’s letter to Fresno County

Community advocates also expressed gratitude to the attorney general for issuing a letter to Fresno County earlier this year, highlighting a number of concerns with Fresno County’s draft general plan.

“I think your letter really put a pause on what they’re working on,” Mariana Alvarenga, a policy advocate for Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, told Bonta.

The March letter said the county’s draft plan failed to comply with laws requiring it to address environmental impacts on vulnerable communities. Also, the letter warned that the plan “likely” violates the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta, right, listens to Rocio Madrigal from Central California Environmental Justice Network, bottom left, about environmental issues as Bonta met local Fresno County organizations and community leaders Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022 in Fresno. Phot credit: Eric Paul Zamora FRESNO BEE

According to the attorney general, the General Plan fails to comply with states law that requires local governments to address environmental justice in their land use planning; the plan also fails to “adopt climate adaptation resiliency strategies” and has failed to prepare a vulnerability assessment or provide climate adaptation and resilience goals and policies, as required state law.

In February, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors blocked the implementation of a grant awarded to the Fresno County Department of Public Health that would have studied the health impacts of climate change on the county’s vulnerable populations.

About a month after the attorney general’s office issued the letter, Paul Nerland, administrative officer for Fresno County, issued a response letter to the attorney general on April 21, where he defended the county’s general plan.

Nerland said there was “no such intent” of discrimination in its zoning, asked for more “specific solutions” from the attorney general, and criticized the public nature of the feedback.

Ashley Werner of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability described as a “defensive” response where it appeared County was “passing the buck” on its zoning responsibilities.

However, Fresno County Public Information Officer Sonja Dosti said the county will “utilize the Attorney General’s expertise to ensure our adopted General Plan considers the needs of our diverse community.”

The Department of Public Works and Planning is currently in the process of reviewing and revising the General Plan and Zoning Ordinance for Fresno County and plans to hold final adoption hearings as soon as October.

Those interested in submitting comments can do so using this online form, or can contact Chris Motta, principal planner by email at or by phone at 559-600-4497.

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.

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