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City response needed after South Fresno neighborhood smothered by recycling center fire

June 22, 2021 — Dozens of families living in the Flamingo Mobile Home Park and communities in South Fresno were exposed to heavy toxic fumes from a large fire that broke out Friday, June 18, 2021, at the Cedar Avenue Recycling and Transfer Station. 

According to news reports, the blistering 108-degree temperature at the time may have helped glass and batteries combust among other recyclable materials. For hours into the night, plumes of smoke drifted across Highway 99 and south and east into the Flamingo Mobile Home Park and nearby neighborhoods. 

This fire spurred Leadership Counsel staff to knock on doors and make calls in the Flamingo Mobile Home Park and nearby neighborhoods, and ask residents if they were OK. Residents whom Leadership Counsel spoke with expressed concerns for their elderly, young, and immunocompromised neighbors. The smoke was heavy and impacts so immediate, some shared that their children’s eyes were watering from the toxic fumes. 

After speaking with residents and seeing the plumes of smoke, Leadership Counsel staff repeatedly requested City, County and Air District officials to assess the situation in impacted neighborhoods. We asked government staff to respond by checking on residents to determine if residents were experiencing health impacts and offer them resources, such as temporary relocation assistance and air filters to assure their wellbeing. 

To our best knowledge, the agencies did not complete wellness checks or assess toxicity levels until at least after Leadership Counsel staff left at 10:30pm, hours after the fire had started.

As the area turned from a rural quaint neighborhood to a site for unwanted industrial uses, longtime residents in this area have been concerned about the levels of pollution emitted from heavy industrial development and heavy trucks. These types of sources have negatively impacted the air quality and their health. It’s no surprise the neighborhood is already one of the most pollution-burden census tracts in California. 

With extremely hot days becoming increasingly normal, and the ongoing approval of industrial developments next to homes and schools, we can only expect these types of events to continue and worsen. Residents are directly feeling the effects of climate change locally, and a lack of policies or emergency planning to mitigate these effects will continue to hurt communities.

For this affected community, the heat and smoke is a punishing reminder of a warmer and drier climate that is exacerbating weather conditions and even magnifying events like a large industrial fire, at a time when the San Joaquin Valley and much of California and the West also face another threat: severe drought conditions linked to climate change. It’s also a reminder of the significant work still needed to reach climate justice and how local land use policies, which have concentrated industrial and waste management uses in South Fresno communities, play a central role in that. 

South Fresno area is an example of a climate-impacted community

Researchers believe that “most fatalities from fires are not due to burns, but are a result of inhalation of toxic gases produced during combustion.” Residents who spoke to Leadership Counsel the night of the fire said they smelled fumes in their homes located downwind of the facility less than a mile away. Many residents in the area suffer from asthma and from heart disease, even as some recover from COVID-19. 

Rankings from the California EPA’s CalEnviroScreen tool ranks the area as: 98th for ozone pollution, 97th for PM2.5 pollution, 98th for toxic release activity, 100th for hazardous waste and for solid waste activity compared to other neighborhoods across the state. The state pollution database also ranks this area as 90th for asthma diagnoses, and 92nd for cardiovascular diseases. 

Research has shown that low-income communities disproportionately exposed to concrete and pavement and which lack trees and green spaces experience higher temperatures compared to more affluent neighborhoods, and thus will feel the most severe impacts of a hotter climate.

South Central Specific Plan brings chance to reverse inequitable  land use patterns and climate impacts

The city is currently developing the South Central Specific Plan, which will determine zoning in this area and surrounding communities, and mitigation strategies to address the impacts of concentrated industrial development in these neighborhoods. 

Currently, the plan calls for even more industrial development encircling neighborhoods and schools despite hearing otherwise from the community. But in the past weeks, neighbors have begun to organize to seek a pause on further industrial development until the Specific Plan and a study of truck re-routing is complete and fully responsive to residents’ requests for protection from industrial land uses. 

For the families living in this area, equitable land use and climate justice is a priority not yet realized for their neighborhoods. Communities are urging that it’s different this time. After a revealing year of health inequity, families want to ensure they are able to continue living in their communities and providing for their children.  

“Neighbors aren’t asking for anything more than anyone else would want for their families and their communities. Just like anyone, they want to make sure their kids can breathe, walk and bike safely in their neighborhood, and generally, not be treated any differently than other parts of the city”, Grecia Elenes, regional policy manager with Leadership Counsel, said. 

The city can, and must, decide that this is their priority, too. On the heels of this fire, Leadership Counsel ask that the City take the following steps to mitigate its effects, protect residents’ from the impacts of future fires, and plan for healthy, vibrant, and equitable neighborhoods that are insulated from the worst impacts of climate change:

  1. Reach out directly to residents at each of the units at the Flamingo Mobile Home Park and other nearby neighborhoods in South Central Fresno to assess if residents experienced adverse health impacts or costs associated with the fire and offer residents support and resources to make them whole to the greatest extent possible.
  2. Partner with state and/or federal agencies with oversight authority to investigate the Cedar Avenue Recycling and Transfer Station’s compliance with its permit conditions and applicable local and state laws. To the extent violations are identified, assess appropriate fees and fines as set forth in the municipal code. Use the fines to provide air filters, N95 masks, and other benefits to South Central residents to mitigate the impacts. 
  3. Develop and resource emergency response and climate adaptation plans that assess potential risks associated with industrial, warehouse, and waste management facilities in South Central Fresno and adopt policies and strategies to directly communicate with residents during an emergency and provide them with needed resources. 
  4. Complete the South Central Specific Plan and Heavy Duty Truck Routing study to prevent further encroachment of industrial uses and goods movement near South Fresno communities, ensure robust mitigation for the impacts of existing and future land use impacts, and provide for enforcement to protect residents, in accordance with extensive input provided by residents during these processes.
  5. Pause new industrial development and related projects, like the East Central Avenue Improvements Project, until the SCSP and Heavy Duty Truck Routing Study are completed, to prevent further entrenchment of unjust land use patterns and the exacerbation of air pollution exposure on residents

We can’t continue arming residents with N95s and air filters while doing nothing about why those are needed in the first place. Simple emergencies are no longer so simple. Environmental factors must be considered in our emergency responses and solutions. 

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