Caltrans did not analyze the public health impacts of a $140 million expansion of Highway 99 in South Fresno. Credit: CRAIG KOHLRUSS

What's at stake:

Caltrans' Fresno interchange expansions will alter the course of a region, enabling a new generation of warehouse development and pollution.

But in terms of public health, Caltrans said residents did not live close enough to warrant any analysis from the agency.

Last May, the American Lung Association ranked Fresno as the most polluted city in America. And yet, last month, the air pollution crisis did not stop one of the state’s top agencies from announcing it would build the infrastructure for a new generation of pollution to be added to the Fresno area. 

On Feb. 6, Caltrans gave the green light to a $140 million set of interchange improvements on Highway 99 in South Fresno.

To push along the interchanges, Caltrans did an environmental review for the projects on American and North avenues, four miles south of downtown Fresno. That environmental review, however, omits one of the key pollution sources in the Valley, nitrogen oxides (NOx), a variety of gas that comes from truck diesel exhaust.

By not measuring NOx, documents show, Caltrans’ environmental review was able to conclude that the projects will “not result in a cumulatively considerable net increase” in any criteria pollutant.

The agency also failed to take into account the health impacts on people living in some of the most pollution-burdened neighborhoods in Fresno, Caltrans documents show

Instead, Caltrans claimed residents and children did not live close enough to warrant the agency’s consideration. But there are two elementary schools within a mile of the projects. Also, a 1,400-bed juvenile detention center is located only 300 yards away from one of the interchanges.

Fresno County’s proposed 3,000 industrial park, currently in the middle of almond and raisin orchards, would gain key highway access points. Gregory Weaver.

In a region with the most polluted air in America, the main mitigation Caltrans offered South Central Fresno residents was a sidewalk with trees and shrubbery. 

Despite the interchange’s decisive role in Fresno’s industrial future, Caltrans did not make the projects environmentally friendly enough to meet the state’s climate goals, Caltrans documents show. The list of the other climate mitigation strategies included building one EV charging station and installing low-power bulbs in street lamps. 

The interchange projects will be built along Fresno’s key growth corridors for industrial development. To give the projects an environmental nod, Caltrans used an old-school approach that assumes highway expansion doesn’t induce more traffic, pollution, and sprawl, experts familiar with the documents say. They point out that highways sprouting leapfrog growth is the very recipe that turned Los Angeles into a metropolis.

The Caltrans projects would trigger just such a scenario in Fresno. The interchanges would enable Fresno County’s most ambitious project in decades, a 3,000-acre industrial park which currently does not have complete highway access, according to Fresno County Supervisor Steve Brandau. 

But it will if the interchanges are built. Such an unplanned development, neither analyzed nor accommodated by existing agricultural zoning, would add 4-17 million annual truck trips to local roads, Fresnoland estimates, using industry-standard formulas. 

How many truck trips will Fresno County’s proposed industrial park add?

Fresno County’s 3,000 acre industrial park between American and North Avenues is currently undergoing an infrastructure assessment at the Fresno County planning department. The county estimates 19-million square feet of warehouse space could be built inside the industrial park. 

Up to 50 million square feet of warehouse space could be built on those 3,000 acres, using similar design principles as the World Logistics Center in the Inland Empire, according to Dr. Mike McCarthy, a Southern California researcher whose work on exhaustively mapping and calculating warehouse pollution across the Inland Empire has been featured in the New York Times and The Guardian

Using these estimates, and official South Coast Air District methodology, we estimate that this industrial park would produce between 4-16 million truck trips annually in the Fresno area.

Nineteen million square feet x .67 truck trips per day/1,000 square feet x 365 days/year = 4,646,450 annual truck trips.

Fifty million square feet x .95 truck trips per day/1,000 square feet x 365 days/year = 17,337,500 annual truck trips.

The pollution impacts of the interchanges would be of regional significance, said Mike Kleeman, a UC Davis professor who has authored nearly every major San Joaquin Valley air quality study over the last two decades. 

“Changes in NOx emissions associated with a highway expansion in the Fresno region would have public health impacts,” Kleeman said.

“Any new major source of NOx pollution in the Valley becomes a regional problem during winter stagnation events,” he added. 

“Health impacts could stretch across multiple counties.”

Not close enough: A juvenile detention facility is less than 300 yards away from Caltrans’ interchange expansion, March 6, 2023. Gregory Weaver

Despite these health impacts, California Air Resources Board chair, Liane Randolph, CalEPA chief, Yana Garcia, and state Attorney General, Rob Bonta, have not taken any official action since the document’s release more than three weeks ago. This comes a year after these key decision makers visited Fresno to talk with residents about the local government’s industrial development plans. Each of their respective agencies declined to comment on a series of questions sent to them by Fresnoland.

The March 8 deadline to file a legal challenge is fast approaching. South Central Fresno residents and organizers are calling on these leaders to take action.

“When CARB visited us a few years ago, we were strong in saying ‘no more widening of streets and freeways. No more industrial, because our air quality is really, really, really bad,’” said Laura Moreno, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Calwa.

“We’re already the most polluted in the United States. How much more do we have to let them know?” 

Nearby resident Rosa De Pew said she wonders, in the absence of oversight, what future impacts had eluded Caltrans’ grasp.

“Caltrans is so gung ho about this project. They have these funds, and they want to get it done, whatever the cost,” De Pew said.

“The sad part is, they can’t even be bothered to tally their debts to public health.”

Caltrans’ million-tailpipe assumption

Caltrans refused, in an emailed statement, to answer questions about the projects — the pollution and public health costs of its local highway expansion — until after the statute of limitations on its environmental review expires later this March.

Neither would the agency answer questions about why it failed to account for NOx, a major contributor to the expansion’s health impacts. 

In Fresno, where the Air Quality Index reads 150 – unhealthy levels – a few days after a rain this winter, residents questioned how Caltrans could avoid calculating the pollution and public health costs of its local highway expansion.

In the environmental review, Caltrans omits the growth-inducing aspects of highway expansion. In addition, they claim that “no new truck traffic” will be added as a result of the interchange projects.

Not close enough: Two elementary schools within mile of new Caltrans interchange. Gregory Weaver

“If (Caltrans) said that this development was going to occur anyway…if there was no encouraging more traffic to occur, their analysis would be correct,” said Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA. 

Few places in the state would have tolerated Caltrans’ strategy, Taylor said, adding state leaders are increasingly on the side of not investing in transportation projects that encourage more driving.

But in Fresno, Taylor said, local leaders have “wildly different views” on whether highway expansion induces new traffic, sprawl or development.

“That’s just not a settled question in the Fresno area at all,” Taylor said.

Caltrans’ claim of no impact is dubious, according to Susan Handy, a UC Davis professor who has helped write Caltrans’ environmental review guidelines.

“Clearly, this is about accommodating new development,” Handy said. 

The interchange projects, Handy said, would work like highway expansions always have.

“The better the freeway access, the more potential there is for development, the more valuable that land is for developers because it’s easier for people to get to and from there.”

Even Steve Brandau, the Fresno County supervisor who’s an outspoken promoter of the projects, acknowledged the interchanges will be a big windfall for unplanned industrial growth. 

“If you’re going to spend your energy adding in an industrial component, or even residential growth, I think either one of those would suffer, unless North and American got some attention,” Brandau said.

He told Fresnoland that Caltrans may have enabled the biggest industrial project yet — the county’s 3,000-acre, 19-million-square-foot industrial park concept which requires tearing out and rezoning thousands of acres of farmland.

“We’re doing the industrial park because it is potentially a fit for this area with these (the Caltrans projects) and other improvements,” Brandau said. 

“If we upgraded American and North, business folks would start looking at [the industrial park]. That’s why we would consider [the interchange upgrades] a help to the industrial park.” 

Caltrans’ absence of public health analysis hasn’t caused any federal, state, or local watchdogs to blink. In fact, the nation’s top environmental watchdog played a key role in Caltrans’ strategy. 

Caltrans & Trump-era EPA claim no air quality impact

In July 2020, the EPA received a memo from Caltrans about the potential air quality impacts of its highway expansion project in South Central Fresno. 

The project’s potential to worsen air quality was miniscule, Caltrans claimed, because “no new truck traffic” would be added as a result of the interchange project.

The EPA agreed.

“EPA concurs that this is not a project of air quality concern,” said Karina O’Connor, an EPA official, in an email to Caltrans dated August 2020. 

As a result, the federal EPA is letting Caltrans go forward with the Fresno interchange projects with no Clean Air Act analysis.

That’s a failure of oversight, said Kevin Hamilton, an executive director at the Central California Asthma Collaborative.

“Why wouldn’t you want to do that analysis? It makes no sense at all,” Hamilton said.

“To hide that information, or to not attempt to find out that information, is wrong.”

As state sours on highway expansion, Caltrans’ tests different legal approach

For the Fresno interchanges, the EPA’s concurrence on the Clean Air Act was no small factor. It allowed Caltrans to avoid an environmental hurdle — the same hurdle that doomed a major highway expansion in Southern California last year. 

In May 2022, a decades-long Caltrans project to expand Interstate 710, in the heart of LA’s “diesel death zone,” was stopped in its tracks by the EPA.

In an attempt to get the LA project done, Caltrans tried to find a way out of doing a pollution hotspot analysis — the same analysis the EPA exempted Caltrans from conducting for the Fresno interchanges.

But the EPA didn’t grant the exemption in LA.

And once the EPA required a full pollution analysis, Caltrans scrapped the LA project entirely.

The failure of the I-710 expansion marked a turnaround in the agency’s history, said Caltrans director Tony Tavares last month.

Caltrans’ booming days of car-soaked highway projects were over, Tavares told the New York Times this January.

“Caltrans in the past was very focused on dealing with congestion primarily,” Tavares told the New York Times. “We have since pivoted, completely done a 180.”

But only 15 days after Tavares’ comment in The Times, Caltrans, under his leadership, went forward with just such an expansion in Fresno. 

Instead of acknowledging a pollution impact and proposing mitigation strategies, as Caltrans tried in LA, the agency said its projects would have no pollution impact on Fresno with one exception — a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions. 

For the highway expansion’s most critical pollutant, nitrogen oxides, Caltrans didn’t even bother to take the gas into account in its emissions inventory. 

Caltrans assumes key pollution source is miniscule

Caltrans normally includes a separate inventory measuring NOx. The pollutant, which is a major source of pollution from heavy-duty diesel exhaust, was included in the analysis for the I-710 expansion in LA. 

But in Fresno, Caltrans didn’t include one.

By claiming no new truck traffic in Fresno, Caltrans asserted no “cumulatively considerable net increase” in any criteria pollutant, including nitrogen dioxide. 

In official documents, the agency provides no rationale for this assertion. 

Fresnoland tried to find an estimate or any analysis of NOx emissions in Caltrans’ environmental report, its technical support documents, technical support document appendices, interagency memos, and computer simulation summaries. We found none.

The agency would also not answer questions about its NOx analysis sent to them by Fresnoland.

But once emitted, NOx travels far and has large public health impacts.

A study published last year showed NOx pollution costs on public health are on par with diesel’s exhaust’s infamous black carbon pollution.

The dumping ground

Mary Gutierrez lives in South Central Fresno, three miles from the interchange, which will be sending a steady stream of diesel traffic her way. Already, when she looks out the window, she sees a big box warehouse across the street. The march of the diesel trucks has left a pile of roadkill in its wake. 

She says she’s the unofficial animal undertaker of her neighborhood, burying the dead cats and dogs from the street out front, roughly one a week. 

In the wake of Caltrans’ interchange announcement, Gutierrez says she’s wearied by imagining a new era of industrial pollution in a neighborhood already more polluted than nearly anywhere else in the United States. 

“It’s just our latest mess of responsibility. I don’t want to be a dumping ground. It takes its toll, emotionally, physically, psychologically,” she said.

For the $140 million interchanges, she sees government action and inaction in all the wrong places.

“I would like my city, my county, my state, my federal government to understand where I’m coming from, and do something about the problem. I need a doer, not a sayer.”

As the fruit and nut orchards surrounding South Central Fresno are torn out and replaced by islands of warehouse concrete, routines shrivel and families dwindle. Down the street from Gutierrez, Ms. Katie Taylor’s garden of lilies, whose springtime sprouts used to be given out to neighbors, has gone fallow.

Panfilo Cerillo, a 57-year old South Central Fresno resident, said the side effects of South Fresno’s accumulation of unwanted land uses leaves residents with hollowed out neighborhoods, but with nowhere else to go. 

Referring to a scene in an old western movie, “when the wagon is circled,” Panfilo said the prospect of even more pollution is like enclosure: of possibilities, of old ways of life, of life spans.

“We’ve seen the writing on the wall. This pollution is already suffocating us all, and they want to shove more of this stuff down our throats,” said Cerrilo.

“Sometimes, I want to move up north, run away. Sometimes I feel like there’s no use in fighting anyway. But if we don’t stand up against this project, who will?”

Support our nonprofit journalism.


Your contribution is appreciated.

Gregory Weaver is a staff writer for Fresnoland who covers the environment, air quality, and development.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. A Grandson I am very, very proud of !!!

    Tom Weaver

    Cambria, California

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *