Residentes de todo Fresno se reunieron en Calwa para anunciar una demanda presentada contra Caltrans por la expansión de la autopista 99 en South Central Fresno, el jueves 6 de abril de 2023. Credit: Gregory Weaver

What's at stake:

Calling on Caltrans to withdraw a Highway 99 expansion plan in South Central Fresno, local community groups have filed a lawsuit against Caltrans which alleges the state agency's environmental review violated state law.

Caltrans says that there will be no public health impacts from the highway project.

South Fresno community groups announced on Thursday a lawsuit against Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration, over a Highway 99 expansion in South Central Fresno. 

The lawsuit, filed in the federal Eastern District court of California last month by Friends of Calwa and Fresno Building Healthy Communities, accuses Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration of violating state law in its environmental review. The EPA recently asked Caltrans to reevaluate key parts of that document’s analysis.

At Thursday’s press conference, the community groups called on Caltrans to withdraw the highway expansion project. 

The expansion, a $140 million plan to upgrade a set of highway interchanges along North and American avenues, would provide complete highway access for Fresno’s next generation of warehouse and industrial development. 

Laura Moreno, the executive director of Friends of Calwa, said Caltrans’ insistence on the highway expansion left residents with no other choice but to file the suit.

“No one has stood with the community to stop this project. So Friends of Calwa and Fresno Building Healthy Communities took legal action. We filed the lawsuit, because enough is enough,” Moreno said.

Opposition against the project brought many valley environmental and social justice groups together at the conference — residents from all over Fresno, the community groups who opposed Measure C’s renewal last fall, local lawyers and lawyers from Stanford. A group called Mothers Helping Mothers, and Fresno’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, also attended the press conference.

Edith Rico, project director for Fresno Building Healthy Communities, one of the organizations filing the complaint, called out Caltrans directly. 

“Residents of Calwa and Malaga have a message for Caltrans: You cannot use our community as a toxic dumping ground for polluting industry,” Rico said. 

“This project is still being pushed through despite the clear negative impacts we know it will have in the neighborhood… residents have called on Caltrans to stop this project at every step of the way, but their voices and their health have been ignored.”

Caltrans’ violated state environmental law, according to lawsuit

In the highway expansion’s environmental review, Caltrans concluded there will be no air quality or public health impacts. But at today’s press conference, lawyers from Stanford University, who are representing the community groups in the lawsuit, said Caltrans’ project will cause “real and direct” health impacts on local residents. 

Caltrans’ failure to analyze these impacts is illegal, said Jacqueline Maldonado, a lawyer at Stanford University’s Mills environmental law clinic. 

“They refuse to even recognize the existence of thousands of residents living near the interchanges or to consider the possibility that residents will be harmed.”

Caltrans’ project is the agency’s latest instance of environmental racism, she added. 

“This project is not occurring in isolation. It takes place against the backdrop of a long history of discriminatory land use and transportation practices, which have concentrated pollution in the historic communities of Calwa and Malaga.”

Caltrans declined to comment for this story, citing the lawsuit filed against the agency. 

According to the community groups, Caltrans is expected to respond to the lawsuit by mid-May. A court date could be set by mid-June.

“We won’t go back.”

At the edge of Calwa, rated by the state as one of California’s most polluted neighborhoods, industrial outfitters swallow the neighborhood’s outskirts. A daisy chain of dumps — a car scrapyard, towering heaps of grinded-up asphalt, and rows of discarded shipping pallets — line up along the neighborhood’s Golden State Boulevard. 

Down the street, Penny Newman’s 60-acre wheat depot, which feeds millions of holstein cows at the Valley’s mega-dairies down south, looms over Calwa Elementary School’s playground. Standing at one of the school’s ball fields, the facility’s rumble of diesel trucks overwhelms the springtime chirps of birds.

Stopping the Caltrans project is a generation-defining test for the Valley’s environmental movement, said Gloria Hernandez, a longtime valley organizer. 

“I’m seeing so many people coming on board to oppose this Caltrans’ project. All our fights over the years, all these communities that have been organizing, are coming together on this one. It’s very encouraging,” Hernandez said.

Building the project means increased public health risks spanning multiple counties, according to Mike Kleeman, one of the valley’s top air quality scientists. The state agency’s projects will provide freeway access for Fresno’s biggest pollution-generating project in generations — a 3,000 acre warehouse park which is planned to go right up to the fence lines of another nearby neighborhood, Malaga.

In Caltrans’ analysis, which concluded the interchanges pose no public health risk to residents, the state agency failed to mention a large planned warehouse park it is potentially providing complete freeway access to.

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

Hernandez is the journeywoman for the valley’s civil rights and environmental justice movement. In the 1970s, she helped organize for one of the valley’s early watershed fights — Kettleman City’s proposed toxic waste incineration plant at the edge of town. She’s been with the United Farm Workers, and knew valley legends like Paul Taylor — the husband of photographer Dorothea Lange — and George Ballis.

With the state’s $140 million commitment to the interchanges, Hernandez said the project is as outrageous as the Kettleman City case, when Kings County officials ignored local residents by failing to provide translation to the largely Spanish-speaking community. She said she was stunned to read Caltrans environmental review, which says residents less than a mile away from their highway expansion don’t live close enough to warrant their consideration.

“Even 40 years on, I’m a bit surprised Caltrans is trying the same old tactics: leaving communities out of the most important decisions that affect their health, either in the meetings or in their analysis. It’s money over people. I thought state agencies learned their lesson a long time ago,” Hernandez said.

“But it didn’t work then, and it’s not going to work now. Once you see this stuff, you can’t go back. We won’t go back.”

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

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