By Vic Bedoian
West Fresno citizens have finally had enough of the noxious odors, flies and pollution from Darling International’s meat rendering plant in their neighborhood, and enough dithering from the City of Fresno. Now they’re going to court. The lawsuit was announced by West Fresno Concerned Citizens at a news conference held April 9 in front of City Hall.
Legal action was brought against the City of Fresno because the plant has never had a conditional-use permit (CUP)—a clear violation of the Municipal Code. Residents have been complaining about the meat processing factory for more than 60 years, yet the city has yet to do anything much to resolve the issue.
Darling International processes 850,000 pounds of meat a day within yards of West Fresno homes. Pastor Booker T. Lewis II of the Rising Star Missionary Church grew up in the neighborhood near his church. He says the decades of inaction by the city is an environmental injustice, “For 20 years my family endured unbearable odors, swarming flies, gatherings of stray dogs attracted to the odors and residues around the plant. The air quality around this plant is still questionable as the odor became so pungent that picnics were impossible and spending time in the yard was insufferable.”
The public interest law firm California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) is working with the group to compel Darling International to finally obtain a CUP from the city. They are also seeking relief from what they say is the discriminatory actions by the City of Fresno that have negatively affected West Fresno residents.
Phoebe Seaton, the CRLA attorney on the case, claims the city has been violating its own law for years, “The city has been aware that this is an illegal, nonconforming use and they have failed to take appropriate action.”
In 2005, the company sought to expand its operations but relented after strenuous opposition. The next year, the city approved housing developments less than a half mile away from the plant, despite continuing grievances about the odors. In 2007, Darling International entered into an abatement agreement with the city and was told to apply for the CUP, but that never happened.
Finally, last December, a mediation process took place between the city, the company and residents. For Mary Curry, president of West Fresno Concerned Citizens, it was the last chance for a negotiated settlement, “There was a lot of talk about what might be done and give them another 90 days, which we did. We’ve acquiesced to everything they asked us to do.
“When this last thing from mediation came out, the city said at the end of mediation if the Darling people did not come up with some solutions, they must start the arbitration process, which means they must get a CUP. They didn’t do that. They came up with another plan to wait two to five more years. We just said, ‘enough.’”
The plant employs around 30 people. They are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. The company claims that the rendering plant has been improved in light of numerous complaints. One worker said the odor coming from the plant is not as bad as residents say.
Dillon Savory, political coordinator for the Fresno-Tulare-Madera-Kings Central Labor Council, backs the company’s position, “These members, all of them are concerned about the plant getting closed because originally the members of the [West Fresno Citizens] Coalition for the past 50 years or more wanted this plant closed. But they haven’t understood the legal challenge that poses.
“Over the past 30 years, there are so many upgrades that Darling has tried to do in compliance with the citizens that are concerned that they’ve actually exceeded the federal regulations that are required to run such a plant.”
After private meetings between the company and the City of Fresno, officials now say the company only needs to agree on abating the problems, rather than moving the plant to another location. After decades fighting for a solution, Curry thinks it falls far short of what is needed, “I’m 80 years old. How much longer should we have to wait for justice?”
The City Council was scheduled to meet in closed session on April 28 to decide whether Darling International, after 60 years in business, would be required to have a conditional-use permit.
Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.