What's at stake:
Caltrans failed to conduct a public health analysis in its environmental review for a Highway 99 expansion in South Central Fresno.
The EPA is now reviewing the state agency's key claim that the highway expansion would add minimal amounts pollution.
On Monday, the federal EPA told Fresnoland it is taking a closer look at Caltrans’ environmental review for a set of interchange projects in South Central Fresno, along Highway 99.
The EPA’s statement comes after Fresnoland reported last week that the Caltrans environmental review contained no public health analysis.
The EPA is reviewing its decision to exempt Caltrans from conducting an air quality analysis for the interchange expansions, said Michael Brogan, an EPA press officer.
In light of Fresnoland’s reporting, the federal agency is now reaching out to Caltrans to assess the accuracy of the state’s environmental review, the spokesman added.
Caltrans declined to comment for this story.
In July 2020, Caltrans told the EPA the interchange projects were not an air quality concern, because “no new truck traffic” would be added as a result of the interchange expansions. Two months later, the EPA agreed, allowing Caltrans to move forward on the interchanges without a Clean Air Act analysis.
Brogan said the federal agency would request Caltrans to “re-open interagency consultation” about potential air quality impacts if “new or additional information” is available for the interchange projects.
Caltrans approves highway expansion without public health analysis
On Feb. 6, Caltrans approved 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.
Caltrans said the environmental impacts of its highway expansion projects in South Central Fresno would be miniscule, documents show.
With the new EPA review, however, this Caltrans conclusion is coming under pressure.
Fresnoland reported last week the state agency failed to analyze one of the highway expansion’s key pollution sources, Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).
Caltrans also failed to conduct a public health analysis in a region with the most polluted air in America. The state agency, in official documents, said such an analysis was unncessary.
The agency repeatedly said residents and children did not live close enough to the interchange projects to warrant their consideration, according to official documents. But a 1,400-bed juvenile detention facility is only 300 yards away from one of the agency’s proposed interchange expansions. There are five schools within a mile-and-a-half of the interchange projects.
The agency also claimed air pollution impacts would be minimal, because the interchange projects would cause “no new truck traffic,” and therefore no new pollution.
“Growth” memo shows path to key Caltrans assumption
New information shows direct evidence of how Caltrans arrived at this traffic and pollution conclusion.
Caltrans absence of public health analysis relies on the agency’s judgment that, despite providing high-capacity freeway access in the middle of farm fields, no farmland will be rezoned for industrial development, according to Caltrans’ Community Impact Memo.
In a previously unreported section of that memo, under the headline “Growth,” Caltrans said the interchange projects will not cause any unplanned industrial growth or rezones around the location of the projects.
“[T]here are no plans to develop beyond existing general planning,” said Caltrans in the community impact memo.
“There are no evident pressures encouraging unplanned growth from the project[s]…[d]evelopment would not be influenced by the project[s]” Caltrans added.
However, Fresnoland’s interviews with experts and public officials contradict this conclusion. Without Caltrans’ projects, Fresno County supervisor Steve Brandau said, future industrial rezones around the Caltrans’ projects would “suffer.”
Along Highway 99, between the two interchanges, Fresno County is currently planning a 3,000-acre industrial park which requires thousands of acres of farmland to be torn out and rezoned. The set of Caltrans’ interchanges would provide complete freeway access for the proposed industrial park.
Susan Handy, a UC Davis professor who’s one of the state’s top transportation experts, told Fresnoland last week that the Fresno interchange projects 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.”