By Kevin Hall
Here is another one for the “Only in Fresno” file. After arbitrarily cutting short the public review process late last year, Mayor Ashley Swearengin successfully pushed through an updated General Plan for the city despite its failure to protect children’s health. Community advocates had less than a week to evaluate the mayoral staff’s responses to public comments, and in her determinedly ignorant way, Swearengin ignored the deadly problem of toxic exposures in current and future city parks. Simply put, Swearengin is willing to poison Fresno children. Moreover, it appears she is not alone.
For a firsthand look at the problem, visit the city’s newest park, Martin “Ray” Riley, at Chestnut Avenue and Freeway 180, specifically the southeast corner of Chestnut and the eastbound 180 on-ramp. There, you will see a fence with the freeway on one side and on the other side crowded basketball courts, playground equipment and kids’ splash park, all well within the 1,000-foot exposure zone determined by the California Air Resources Board as highly dangerous.
Due to the toxic emissions from trucks and automobiles, the California air board guidelines call for at least a 500-foot separation between freeways and playgrounds, preferably 1,000 feet. Ironically, funds from a separate state agency were used to build this fatal attraction: $3.2 million from the California Natural Resources Agency, which wrongfully assumed that Swearengin would conduct proper environmental review of such hazards; instead, her staff declared there were no significant risks associated with the park’s location.
Because rather than having 1,000 feet of separation from the freeway, this park has zero, and it is not alone. Three more parks are along the 180, another is in West Fresno next to Freeway 99 and yet another is at Ashlan Avenue and Freeway 168. Two new ones are planned at Freeway 99 and Bullard Avenue, as well as Freeway 41 and Sierra Avenue. That is because Swearengin’s new policy is to “negotiate with Caltrans…to develop remnant parcels along freeway corridors for appropriate recreational uses.” The problem with that policy is that appropriate recreational uses next to a freeway simply do not exist. The additional problem is that in late December the mayor’s push included approval of the Master Environmental Impact Report for the entire General Plan.
“It’s stunning that in this day and age, and in of all places Fresno, we find such a backward and extremely dangerous policy,” said respiratory therapist Kevin Hamilton, deputy chief program officer of Clinica Sierra Vista and founding member of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air. “The science is in—and has been for a long time—engine exhaust kills. Our kids’ health must come first.”
The sad, painful reality of Ray Riley Park is that there is a severe shortage of parks in City Council District 7, so a great number of residents of all ages are flocking to it daily. Clint Olivier is the Councilmember for the district and warned of the hazards more than three years ago at a community meeting. He rejected the idea of relocating the park, ignored the suggested mitigation of tall trees as a buffer and attacked critics as being anti-park.
Like Swearengin, Olivier displays a callous disregard for the health of Fresno residents, particularly its lowest-income families. His district is also home to a pocket park at San Pablo and Belmont that is located directly beneath the raised portion of Freeway 180. For Olivier, apparently a fun family outing should feature a strong dose of toxic exhaust known to cause cancer, asthma and more.
Research going back more than two decades has demonstrated a long list of impacts from such air pollution, including reduced lung function in children, increased asthma hospitalizations, and increased asthma and bronchitis symptoms. Furthermore, carcinogens found in car exhaust are linked to childhood cancer.
However, the most alarming findings in recent years have been developed by a team of researchers from Stanford and UC Berkeley working right here in Fresno. Published in 2010, their findings describe molecular-level changes made to the DNA of our kids because of prolonged exposure to vehicle emissions, particularly diesel exhaust. According to the UC Berkeley News Center, “The researchers found that air pollution exposure suppressed the immune system’s regulatory T cells (Treg), and that the decreased level of Treg function was linked to greater severity of asthma symptoms and lower lung capacity.” These impacts to the immune system go beyond asthma to diabetes, GI diseases and obesity. They also appear to be inheritable, meaning this generation will pass its damaged genes along to the next. (For more information, visit http://newscenter.berkeley. edu/2010/10/05/asthma/.)
The two proposed parks fall into the districts of City Council Members Steve Brandau and Lee Brand. With Brand now running for mayor and Brandau running for every microphone he can find, it will be interesting to see if north-end Fresno residents will be subjected to the same treatment as their south-side counterparts. Both new parks are located, like Olivier’s travesty, immediately next to a freeway. Brandau’s poison park on the northwest corner of Freeway 99 and Bullard Avenue has the highest traffic count by far, especially for diesel trucks, but would-be mayor Brand’s toxic project on the northeast corner of Freeway 41 and Sierra Avenue is very bad, too.
The city is slated to update its Parks Master Plan this year. How will these City Council members respond? Brand, who voiced near-contempt for health impacts from air pollution when voting to approve the highly polluting Assemi/Granville Homes almond orchard in West Fresno, will face the consideration of his own constituents’ health for a change, plus his citywide political ambitions. And Brandau, who is regarded as politically beholden to Assemi, will be faced with the fact that the site for his district’s proposed new poisonous playground is surrounded by Assemi sprawl projects; Brandau will probably find comfort in his Tea Party, buyer-beware, let-the-market-decide simplistic worldview, children’s health be damned. Literally.
So, save some room in your Only-in-Fresno file. It is sure to keep growing.
Kevin Hall is a long-time community activist. He has led fights for clean air, fair transportation spending and smart growth. He has fought against Fresno’s daytime curfew ordinance, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attack on unions and the original Measure Z.