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'Cal Enviroscreen' Ranks Zip Codes Statewide By Pollution

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New Screening Tool Provides Broad Snapshot of Total Environmental Burden

Factory in West Fresno. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)
A factory in West Fresno. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

It's the first environmental health screening tool of its kind in the country.

California’s Environmental Protection Agency is rolling out "Cal Enviroscreen" which helps pinpoint communities that may be particularly vulnerable to pollution. And it's not just for wonks. You can look up your own community. Cal Enviroscreen measures a broad range of pollutants and health indicators in every zip code across the state.

The most vulnerable community in the state? West Fresno, one of Fresno's poorest areas. Other zip codes in the top ten include Bakersfield, Stockton and the Los Angeles-area communities of Vernon, Baldwin Park, and Boyle Heights.

Toxicologist Dr. George Alexeeff heads the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. He says California regulators have done a pretty good job of targeting individual pollution problems, like reducing diesel exhaust, or eliminating particular chemicals in drinking water.


But that kind of regulation doesn’t give a broad snapshot of the total environmental burden some communities face.

“This tool was to try and look at [a] community as a whole rather than a specific site or chemical,” says Alexeeff. “What about those areas that seem to be suffering from multiple sources of pollution?”

Cal Enviroscreen measures things like traffic, hazardous waste facilities, and pesticides. Top-scoring communities generally have high rates of air pollution and multiple toxic cleanup sites. The tool also measures population and health indicators, like poverty, low birth weight, and asthma rates.

But Alexeeff is careful to say while the tool gauges health indicators, it doesn’t imply a causal link.

“We’re using something like asthma or birth weight in this analysis, not to say the pollution is causing the asthma or the low birth weight,” he says. “Instead, what we’re saying is the community has people with asthma or seems to have a higher rate of low birth weight, and those individuals are more sensitive to pollution.”

Life in West Fresno: New Park Built on Superfund Cleanup Site

In some ways, it's no wonder that West Fresno scored highest in the state on the index: the area is a perfect storm of pollution and poor health.

City leaders recently opened a new sports complex there, billing it a “baseball, softball, and soccer dreamland.” It also features a skateboard park, paintball, and a fishing pond.

Watching kids play, you might not realize the park is also built on a superfund cleanup site.

“This location was formerly a dump. This is what we have as a park in West Fresno,” says community activist Bob Mitchell.

The park sits adjacent to a former landfill that was actually once honored on the national register of historic places.

It was closed after regulators figured out it was leaking dangerous pollutants into the air and water. Even though the site has been cleaned up, the city still burns off methane from the landfill and monitors the groundwater for chemicals.

“We’re glad the dump is gone,” says Mitchell. “But we don’t know what the pollutants are under here. And how they may impact a child who runs and rolls around in the grass.”

Mitchell’s a retired police officer. These days he’s active with Concerned Citizens of West Fresno, which has been fighting odors from a meat-rendering plant down the street from this park.

If you were to stand up on the grassy mound covering the landfill, you’d likely see an abandoned junk yard where the state found heavy metals and PCBs.

You’d catch a glimpse of meat-processing plants, factories, and miles of orchards and vineyards, where farmers spray pesticides and the 99 freeway, pulsing with diesel trucks.

West Fresno has some of the highest rates of asthma in the state. And a recent study estimates that life expectancy here is about 20 years less than people living just across town in North Fresno.

“That is simply ridiculous,” says Mitchell. “And that is the direct result of the cumulative effect of what has been put into our community.“

Bad for Business?

While industry has been concerned Cal Enviroscreen will create more regulations, Alexeef says that’s not the goal. He says the tool is designed to help target resources. Under SB 535 25 percent of the funds raised from cap-and-trade auctions under California’s greenhouse gas laws, for example, are supposed to benefit disadvantaged communities  –- and this tool can help pinpoint those areas.

But some local leaders from LA and the Central Valley are worried the data gives too much weight to pesticides and diesel pollution.

“If you were just to look at the map, you’d think we’d have our mouths attached to the tailpipes along the [Highway] 99 corridor,” says Vito Chiesa, Chair of the Stanislaus County board of Supervisors. At first, he thought the Cal Enviroscreen tool was a good idea. After all, his constituents are always complaining the state doesn’t pay enough attention to their region’s problems.

But then, he started to worry it could backfire.

“This would be like hanging a sign at the county or the city limits saying, hey, don’t even think about doing business here,” says Chiesa.

Environmental Justice groups applaud the tool, saying it will bring needed funds to low-income communities. But they also have concerns.

“Zip codes are a very large geographic unit,” says Amy Vanderwarker, who chairs the statewide California Environmental Justice Alliance, based in Oakland.

“Within one zip code, you can have communities that are right next to refineries or power plants, and then you can have well-off communities that have good environmental conditions in their area,” Vanderwarker says.

Environmental and health activists are also worried Cal Enviroscreen also doesn’t take into account drinking water contamination. And it may not detect asthma rates in remote rural communities, since it measures asthma through emergency room visits.

Cal EPA officials received more than a thousand comments [PDF] on drafts of the tool. And they say they plan to release a version using smaller geographic units, like census tracts, later this year.

Back in West Fresno, young pregnant moms recovering from drug and alcohol addiction are listening to a health educator give them tips on taking care of themselves. The Cal Enviroscreen tool shows that this community scores among the highest in the state when it comes to low birth weight-babies.

The class is sponsored by the West Fresno Family Resource Center. Director Yolanda Randles says she’s not surprised by the grim data. But she wants to see more resources headed to her community, now.

“You’re saying in West Fresno, it’s like the worst place to live, but you’re not putting [in] any funds to help change that direction for the residents here,” says Randles.

It’s unclear just how soon Cal Enviroscreen will translate into dollars for high-scoring communities. The California Air Resources Board will consider the tool at a meeting later this week, a first step in figuring out how to allocate cap and trade money to disadvantaged communities.


Listen to Sasha Khokha's Story:

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