Fresno Lawsuit Challenges Caltrans: Fighting Pollution or Fighting Jobs?
Laura Moreno, executive director of Friends of Calwa, is not concerned that the latest environmental lawsuit in Fresno County may send hundreds, if not thousands, of warehouse jobs elsewhere.
“They don’t bring jobs to Calwa residents. They say they do. But I would probably count how many residents are working at the Amazon building. That’s not true. That’s what they get away with, saying all the time that brings jobs. No, it doesn’t,” said Moreno on Thursday.
Friends of Calwa and Fresno Building Healthy Communities filed a federal lawsuit last month against Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration. They are challenging the approval of improvements at two freeway intersections: Highway 99 at American Avenue and Highway 99 at North Avenue.
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The issue pits environmental concerns with increasing commerce in this Fresno County industrial zone. The arguments are familiar. The improvements will help with traffic flow to areas already designated as industrial areas, with desires to expand, supporters say.
Opponents say the increased traffic will continue to pollute already overburdened communities, especially communities of color.
The lawsuit seeks to overturn the approval of the interchange projects and prevent the start of construction until proper environmental reviews are rendered.
Both Caltrans and FHWA declined to comment on Thursday because of the ongoing litigation.
GV Wire contacted Amazon and is awaiting a response.
Improved Access for Commerce …
On its website, Caltrans said “the project would improve traffic operations at the interchanges,” and “lower air emissions on the local road system and improved access for businesses in the project area and to destinations in the surrounding area.”
The projects, estimated to cost up to $146 million (not considering inflation), received final Caltrans approval in January. Construction is scheduled to start on the American Avenue project in January 2025 and be completed by May 2027; the North Avenue project is slated to start in January 2026 and finish by December 2028.
Nick Audino, senior vice president with Newmark Pearson Commercial, said improving the intersections will increase traffic flow.
“It’s critical because, otherwise, you have long lines of trucks clogging up intersections at Central and at North Avenue and at times even backing up into the slow lane of flowing traffic,” Audino said.
Audino said the lawsuits are only likely to delay inevitable intersection improvements.
Moreno says that future distribution centers and industrial plants should be built on Fresno’s north side.
“Take it on the other side of town. Why do they focus on areas that are lower-income people? They think that the community doesn’t have a voice and they do,” Moreno said.
Audino said industrial spaces have few places to go. In the city of Fresno, most industrial zones are along Highway 99, and near the airport.
“Aside from that, industrial growth will continue into the county of Fresno and then into the neighboring cities and counties along the 99 corridor,” Audino said.
… or Environmental Disaster?
“We can not allow our children to walk or ride their bicycle to school because of all the heavy traffic.” — south Fresno resident Panilo Cerrillo
Friends of Calwa and Fresno BHC called a Thursday morning news conference, saying they will fight the freeway interchange projects.
“We filed the lawsuit because enough is enough. South Fresno needs investments, not another toxic delivery,” Moreno said.
Moreno said they want to see investments in the community, such as better bus routes, pharmacies, and a Target store.
Panfilo Cerrillo has lived in south Fresno for nearly all of his 68 years. He says the pace of development has increased recently.
“The air is getting worse,” Cerrillo said. “We can not allow our children to walk or ride their bicycle to school because of all the heavy traffic. And it’s all because of the industrialization in our already overburdened communities.”
Resident Rosa DePew added, “It’s unbearable.”
The plaintiffs laid out their message to stop the project.
“Residents in Calwa, Malaga, and other communities have a message for Caltrans. You cannot use our communities as a toxic dumping ground for polluting industries,” Edith Rico, Fresno BHC project director said.
Supervisor Wants a Solution
Fresno County Supervisor Sal Quintero represents Calwa and the area of the North Avenue intersection project.
“It’s always hard to reach a happy medium with any two sides that are involved in something like this. But I think, hopefully, we’ll be able to strike a balance,” Quintero said.
Moreno says Quintero hasn’t been responsive to their needs.
“We haven’t talked to him yet. But, I mean, he should be out here anyway. He should be out there, checking whatever has to be done,” Moreno said.
Quintero said he in fact replied to Friends of Calwa’s request for a meeting. In February, he said they would call to set up a meeting time.
“I’ve never heard from them since,” Quintero said.
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Plaintiffs’ Attorneys Are Working Pro Bono
The plaintiffs are represented by the Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, and the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic. Both organizations are working pro bono.
“This case exemplifies the racial inequities that are baked into the transportation system,” Stephanie Safdi, the law clinic’s supervising attorney said. “It’s doing so in a community that already faces severe pollution burdens, truck traffic burdens, industrial development issues, and underlying social vulnerabilities. And, so for us, this is a necessary and important case to be an ally.”
The 42-page lawsuit argues that the interchange approvals violated state and federal environmental reviews.
“It didn’t consider increases in truck traffic or transportation increases. It didn’t fully consider air quality impacts, odor impacts, other public health impacts. It didn’t consider the existence of thousands of residents surrounding the interchange projects that will be harmed,” Safdi said.
The plaintiffs sent a notice — as required by law — to California Attorney General Rob Bonta, whose office would presumably defend Caltrans as a state agency.
Last year, Bonta sent separate letters to both the county and city of Fresno, warning that rezoning in the area could be “potentially unlawful.” Last summer, Bonta visited the Friends of Calwa offices, where Thursday’s news conference took place.
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Federal Magistrate Erica Grosjean will hold the initial hearing on June 13 in her Fresno courtroom.