By Diana Marcum,Â Los Angeles Times
FRESNO, Calif. â Californiaâs new effort to map the areas most at risk from pollution features hot spots up and down California.
But nowhere are there more of the worst-afflicted areas than in Fresno â in particular a 3,000-person tract of the cityâs west side where diesel exhaust, tainted water, pesticides and poverty conspire to make it No. 1 on Californiaâs toxic hit list.
âIâm looking at this map, and all I see is red. Weâre right here,â Daisy Perez, a social worker at the Cecil C. Hinton Community Center, said as she located the center of the red areas that represented the top 10 percent most-polluted census tracts in California. âItâs so sad. Good people live here.â
Pollution has long plagued the Central Valley, where agriculture, topography and poverty have thwarted efforts to clean the air and water. The maps released this week by the California Environmental Protection Agency show that eight of the stateâs 10 census tracts most heavily burdened by pollution are in Fresno.
For residents of the stateâs worst-scoring area, statistics tell only part of the story of what it is like to live there.
Itâs a place where agriculture meets industry, crisscrossed by freeways. The city placed its dumps and meat-rendering plants there decades ago.
Historically, it was the heart of the cityâs African-American community. The Central Valleyâs civil rights movement was centered in its churches. People referred to it as West Fresno, which meant a culture as well as a place.
These days, young community workers call it by its ZIP Code â the â93706 Zone.â
Itâs home to a Latino community â the children and grandchildren of migrant workers; to Hmong and Cambodian farmers; and to a minority African-American community that includes those desperate to leave, and an old guard of those who say they will never abandon home.
âThe voice of the community is still black. Because weâre the ones who now have the wherewithal and time to speak,â said Jim Aldredge, who took over running the community center when the city cut its budget. âLook, when youâre just trying to survive, you donât have time to go before City Council and all that. Pollution data is the farthest thing from your mind when youâre looking for your next meal.â
Aldredge grew up in West Fresno and worked in city government for 20 years, once as city manager. He can point out better than most the stories literally buried beneath the landscape.
Thereâs the grassy hill â just a mound, really â that constitutes Hyde Park, which was once a dump. Not a landfill, but an old-time dump where people took trash and tires to be burned.
The city is careful to keep the grass green on top of the mound, and a study done before building started on the new junior high school found the land no longer contaminated by chemicals that had seeped into the ground.
Across the street is an animal rendering plant, a chicken plant and an electric substation.
In front of the plants are fields of strawberries, giving way to orchards of pistachio and fruit trees.
This area ranks in the 90th percentile for pesticide applications, according to the state.
âBut we donât talk about the pesticides,â Aldredge said. âThe agricultural folks are so strong.â
On Tuesday, a bright blue day, a breeze kicked up dust devils in a wide open field of dirt across the street from a housing tract.
This was where Donald Trump once planned to build a golf course designed by Jack Nicholson, surrounded by country club homes. Now it is dust. Fine particulate matter is one of the leading causes of air pollution in Fresno during the winter months.
The most controversial industry in the area is the Darling International meat processing plant.
A vocal group of residents led by Mary Curry, who lives downwind from the stench, maintains a strong public outcry.
According to the Cal/EPA data, the nearby Cargill rendering plant actually releases more pollutants into the air than the Darling plant.
But there is no organized push against that plant, which sits near the intersection of two freeways in the census tract, known as Edison, with the most health risks in all of California.
The new data â the first of its kind in the country â looks at a communityâs level of education and ability to communicate with the power structure as well as environmental factors.
When Aldredge was a teenager â a standout baseball player intent on leaving West Fresno behind â he would walk by tallow plants with dead horses and cows outside and a slaughterhouse that always smelled.
âI donât know that I even knew different,â he said. âIt was just the way things were.â
On Tuesdays, when the community center gives out food, part of Daisy Perezâs work is to ask residents what they like about their neighborhood and what bothers them.
âThey always say that they like that itâs quiet. People like the country feel and the community feel,â she said. âBut they always complain about headaches, especially when the wind blows. They think itâs the smell from the meat plants or maybe the pesticides.â
A breeze carried a smell from a meat rendering plant. Perez said she found it a choking stench and had to fight a gag reflex.
Shakur Tyson, 14, who goes to school and works at the center, said at first he didnât smell anything.
Then he said he was starting to notice a bit of a smell.
âIâm just used to it. I guess,â he said. âItâs the way things are.â
Flickr viaÂ AgustÃn Ruiz