South Fresno residents take historic action against Caltrans and Federal Highway Administration over toxic highway interchange expansions

On March 8, Fresno Building Healthy Communities and Friends of Calwa sued the California Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration in federal district court over their approval of a project to reconstruct and expand two interchanges connecting State Route 99 to local roadways in Calwa, Malaga, and other South Fresno neighborhoods.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 4, 2023

MEDIA CONTACTS
Jill Hindenach, 202-494-6309, jhindenach@leadershipcounsel.org 
Alissa Burton, 614-917-8703, aburton@fresnobhc.org
Stephanie Safdi, 513-324-1965, ssafdi@stanford.edu

FRESNO, CA—On March 8, Fresno Building Healthy Communities and Friends of Calwa sued the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in federal district court over their approval of a project to reconstruct and expand two interchanges connecting State Route 99 to local roadways in Calwa, Malaga, and other South Fresno neighborhoods. The project would increase capacity for heavy-duty truck traffic to flow into local low-income communities of color and unleash further industrialization in these already overburdened neighborhoods. 

“For years, South Fresno has put up with endless industrialization in our communities, damaging our health, safety, and overall well-being,” said Laura Moreno, Calwa community resident and executive director of Friends of Calwa. “We’ve demanded action from the Air Resources Board, Valley Air District, local elected officials, and even the governor and Attorney General, but still this project moves forward.”

For more than a decade, California has adopted legislation and other directives requiring state and local agencies to reduce pollution exposures, reverse industrialization trends, promote environmental justice in overburdened communities, and embed equity in state programs and actions. The Caltrans and FHWA project undermines these efforts to reduce air pollution and industrial burdens in South Fresno. 

“Under Assembly Bill 617, the state prioritized South Fresno as a community in the highest need for improvements to air quality,” said Jacqueline Maldonado, Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School. “By increasing truck traffic and unleashing further industrialization, the project directly conflicts with programs and policies adopted under that state law. In their environmental review of the project, the agencies failed to even consider these conflicts, not to mention avoid them.” The Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, together with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, are representing Fresno Building Healthy Communities and Friends of Calwa in the lawsuit.

“South Fresno residents and community-based organizations worked for years to ensure the adoption of a strong AB 617 Community Emissions Reduction Plan that would protect communities from toxic air emissions from unwanted industrial development and truck traffic in their neighborhoods,” said Ivanka Saunders, regional policy manager at Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability and South Central Fresno AB 617 Community Steering Committee member. “Caltrans’ support for this project, in partnership with the City and County of Fresno, flies in the face of those efforts and undermines community trust in the state as a critical partner in their fight for equity and civil rights.”

The interchange expansion project will support the buildout of thousands of acres of industrial zoned land surrounding homes, schools, parks, and places of worship in South Fresno. In addition, it will allow the development of a new 3000-acre industrial park by Malaga, adding more truck traffic and air pollution not just in South Fresno, but throughout the region. Caltrans and FHWA have determined that this expansion will not result in any more “meaningful pollution” to the area. The EPA has since requested for Caltrans and the FHWA to reevaluate that conclusion.   

“Recently here, there’s been a lot of housing that’s been taken out. Most of our residential areas are now light to heavy industrial,” said Panfilo Cerrillo, South Central Fresno community resident. “We take care of my grandchildren, and they’re not allowed to walk to school anymore because of all the traffic. My wife’s asthma has gotten worse, and now I have two grandchildren who are also impacted by the quality of air.”

“It is deeply disappointing to see the state collaborate with local governments in Fresno to perpetuate and exacerbate the discriminatory land use patterns which residents have worked with such dedication to oppose and which have resulted in their status as among the most environmentally burdened in California,” said Ashley Werner, directing attorney at Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “The state must fulfill its commitments to act as an ally to South Fresno neighborhoods in their quest for clean air, fair land use patterns, and thriving communities with access to opportunity.”

The lawsuit challenges flawed environmental reviews of the interchange expansion project under state and federal laws. The reviews identify a primary purpose of the project as supporting expanding interchange capacity for truck traffic to serve new industrial development. The community groups assert that the agencies refused to acknowledge the significant increases in truck traffic and industrialization that will result from the project or related air quality, noise, housing, public health, and other environmental impacts. Worse still, the agencies refused to consider the project’s impacts on the communities surrounding the interchanges or its conflict with state and local requirements to improve air quality for these overburdened communities.

“The California Environmental Quality Act and National Environmental Protection Act create clear obligations for Caltrans and the FHWA,” said Kiran Chawla, Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School. “Rather than diligently comply, the agencies created a limited and rushed environmental review and provided little detail on the project’s full scope of impacts and how it would increase cumulative health and environmental burdens on some of the most polluted communities in the state.”

Fresno’s neighborhoods—especially those in South Fresno, made up of BIPOC families—face an even more polluted, toxic, and deadly future. The community is fed up with state agencies and their failed equity promises. We encourage residents from South Fresno, and other neighborhoods to support the community and stand against the expansion project and join us for this important press conference.

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Fresno Building Healthy Communities
Fresno Building Healthy Communities is a coalition of community- and faith-based organizations, residents, and young people working together to foster and encourage thriving communities where all children and families can live healthy, safe, and productive lives.

Friends of Calwa
Friends of Calwa’s mission is to ensure every child grows up in a thriving community. Friends of Calwa brings resources and people together to foster a healthy and thriving Calwa, where all people have access to quality education, good jobs, healthy food, public transportation, housing, recreation and parks, retail, meaningful civic engagement, and the opportunity to enjoy artistic, spiritual, and cultural amenities.  

Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability
Leadership Counsel works alongside the most impacted communities in the San Joaquin Valley and Eastern Coachella Valley to advocate for sound policy and eradicate injustice to secure equal access to opportunity regardless of wealth, race, income, and place. LCJA focuses on issues like housing, land use, transportation, safe and affordable drinking water and climate change impacts on communities.

Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School
The Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford enables students to provide legal assistance to nonprofit organizations on a range of environmental issues. The clinic’s clients include large national environmental organizations and a variety of regional and local grassroots groups and community-based organizations.

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