Fresno Neighborhood Choking on Amazon’s Dust Demands the Right to Know
An interview by Jess Clarke with Leo Martinez Macias and Ashley Werner, Attorney for Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability
Jess Clarke: First off, it’d be great if you could introduce yourself and just tell me a little bit about how you came to be in Fresno and what it’s been like living there all these decades.
Leo Martinez Macias: Sure. My name is Leo Martinez Macias, and I originally came to Fresno in 1960. I purchased a home there in 1967 on 1443 East Central Avenue, trying to live out on the country where I'd like to raise my family in a safe, rural environment because I'm used to living out in the country.
Today I’ve got my grandkids here. They’re all here making a lot of noise. I forgot to say that I had a family function at this time. It’s our anniversary of 54 years of being together, me and the wife.
Macias: It’s nice. We’re a pretty close family. We have a lot of functions together.
Clarke: How many kids do you have?
Macias: Oh, my own children? We have four. Three boys, one girl, altogether, grand kids, We lost count, but I think there’s about 22, 23 grandkids and great grandkids.
Clarke: So they grew up in Fresno there?
Macias: My kids yeah, they grew up here in 1443 Central Avenue. When I bought this home at that time it was surrounded by farmland.
But over the years all varieties of industrial plants and hazardous waste facilities sprung up, bringing toxic air pollution, constant truck traffic, and contaminating our water. We were never consulted or asked before these facilities appeared and started to impact our quality of life. Now, our community ranks in the 100th percentile for pollution burden according to the California EPA.
So we are already in in a tough situation recently, all of a sudden, all this construction started going upon Central Avenue and Cedar Avenue and all around the community. There were several different big factories going up and very little input from the community. There was no way of knowing what it was all about. The city did not actually want to communicate with us to let us know what was going to happen with all this construction. One big concern is they’ve taken all water supply by building big wells for all the new construction. Our wells are going dry, ours is on the brink of going dry and we’ve got no water or sewer connection.
Clarke: Listen, if I ask you any questions you don't want to answer, just take a pass. As I understand it, there are a lot of people in your neighborhood, and your family who have suffered various kinds of health conditions that might’ve been caused by the pollution that's coming off these facilities. If you want to share any of that, give us a little sense of what the stakes are for people who are exposed to this stuff?
Macias: Yes, it’s very concerning. I’ve seen a lot of it my family. Two of my family members have developed cancer, I have cancer, asthma and a lot of other respiratory problems. My neighbors right next door to me passed away due to cancer, and another two neighbors on the other side. Yeah, this is very hard for us because we’re dealing with a lot of [contamination] in the air, in the water, in the soil, everything.
Now the dust from construction is choking us and triggering our asthma. We are told that more than thousands of trucks will pass by our homes everyday. But we have not yet heard what will be done to protect air quality, or ensure that kids can walk and bike safely.
Clarke: Ashley, I imagine you have some background on that.
Ashley Werner: Yes. It’s worth noting that this neighborhood has been identified under CalEnviroScreen as the most pollution burdened census tract in California. That’s because, in addition to the new facilities the city is permitting, this area also has several hazardous waste sites, a landfill. They’re quite near farming that uses hazardous pesticides. So there’s a whole range of facilities that are really impacting them and then contributing to these poor health outcomes that Leo and his family and his neighbors are experiencing.
Then it also is combined with these facts of, you know, they’re on domestic wells and the neighborhood is running dry and even though right across the street these new facilities are getting water and sewer. If residents get notice of these projects, there’s a real opportunity to assess how the project might be compounding all of these impacts that are leading this neighborhood to be the worst in California and identify appropriate ways to reduce those impacts.
Clarke: Worst in California. That's a tough honor to bear.
Werner: It is. It’s just kind of amazing to me how that's such a significant fact, and yet it doesn’t really carry weight in Fresno. That's an example of why we can’t afford to just leave it to the locals if they’re not going to do anything. We really need the state to step and say, you know, we’ve developed a tool, CalEnviroScreen, to identify communities being overburdened. Now, we need to take the next step to make sure that they’re allowed to be engaged in these processes that are creating these outcomes of disproportionate burdens.
Clarke: So they don't give you any notice, and they don't tell you what they’re building? And they don't want to hear about it when you do find out? That's the basic sense of it.
Macias: They made applications with no restrictions on the warehouses. They want to build with no input from the community. When we talked to the city council. They ignored us and laughed at us. They didn’t seem to care about the community. We weren’t able to communicate with him. When we do find out they basically ignore us and keep on constructing whatever they want.”
We were not even asked about the area being industrial, but it’s industrial on one side of the street because it’s city. The other side, it’s county, and I think we’re in-between there. They just kind of thought they would ignore us and keep on constructing whatever they wanted, they’re planning. Like I said, when we tried to go to the city council there and require some information, they really ignored us.
When we had a meeting and we asked about them building a four-lane on Central Avenue they said they didn’t have the money to do so. Just a lot of little things that were showing that they were not interested in caring about the area.
Like I said, they didn’t facilitate any bike paths or anything like that for commuters to ride along the paths if they wanted to go to work on bikes or widen the streets. So that made that area a lot more congested with traffic and everything, and, like I said, not allow for walkways, bike paths, or anything like that.
Clarke: So what you’re asking for, in terms of getting some new legislation on the state level…want to sum that up in your own words in terms of what kind of notice you feel your community should be receiving?
Macias: Well, I am really impressed with the AB-2447 legislation to make sure that people get notice and are aware of what’s going on in their communities and that somebody is letting them know about the hazards and all the things that go with building a safe community, that the environment is protected from pollution and so forth. To me, it’s very important for a safe community, where they do the necessary studies and everything to make sure that the pollution just doesn’t go to one area and pollute all of a certain part of Fresno or the community. You know, any concern about whether they’re polluting more than it should be or just making sure that the laws are being followed by the city planning commission and the city council.
Clarke: Right. I know I saw a study there that Northeast Fresno, life expectancy is almost 20 years higher than Southwest Fresno. So obviously the burden of pollution has added up there. So what would you like to see in your own neighborhoods there? What kind of facilities would you want to permit or what would you want to build to make that a better, safer, healthier community for you?
Macias: I know it’s too much to ask, but you would definitely want to make sure that the air environment is safe enough to be outside and to be around there. I think that that needs to be monitored very closely for everybody. Since we’re on the south side of Fresno, since all the wind just blows towards the south side of Fresno, that's very, very common that we get all the dust and everything else from the north side and not protected from anything like that. Streets are definitely not equal from the north side of Fresno to the south side of Fresno. They’re neglected because they were all, like I said, debating who should care of it, the city or the country. The streets were so eroded. There were so many potholes you had to just be zigzagging all over the place to get around there.
Of course we’d like a neighborhood park. At one point, they were talking about making a park out of the city dump that used to be the Orange Avenue dump, but that's all so contaminated that I think that’s where a lot of contamination comes from.
Clarke: So do you get retail stores and shopping opportunities put into your neighborhood?
Macias: There’s no retail stores out there. Nobody wants to go out there. It’s a slow-growing community. There’s not a lot of people around there. All you see is maybe gas stations or just fast food places, but there’s no big retail stores going around there.
Clarke: So you’ve got the Amazon warehouse and the Ulta Beauty warehouse but you don't have any place to shop yourself.
Macias: Correct. Like I said, it’s totally a different thing than living on the north side of Fresno. It’s just one of those things that I suppose you tend to learn that you don't have the resources that other people have. You don't have the money to contribute to candidates to do what they want and so forth, so they’re not going to look after you. That's my way of thinking. I mean, sorry, but I was born poor, and I guess that's the way it’s going to be.
Clarke: So you guys are trying to build some power using beside money, then.
Macias: Yeah. Well, of course, like I said, we feel that by affiliating with the Leadership Council, we at least had a little voice there or something where they could finally recognize us and talk to us a little bit about what our needs were, and so forth, and they paid a little more attention as to not polluting our air so much and making the traffic so congested and all that. There’s a lot that needs to be done in that area.
Clarke: All right. Well, it was good talking with you. I appreciate you taking time out on your anniversary, and congratulations again. 54 years is no small accomplishment, not to mention 20-something kids that you can hardly keep track of who are bouncing around in the background.
Macias: Thank you very much. I'm very proud of my family —and my dog, I call him Tarzan, they love him, and then they get around here playing…and it’s a handful when they get together. We’re expecting about 35, 40 people right now here.
Anyway, like I said, we’re a very happy family... until we start talking about our health and talk about what each of us are going through. Then, well what can you say, “Oh, well, I hope you do better. That’s not enough. That's why sometimes you have to deal directly with the source of a problem.
We deserve to know what will be built in our neighborhood and how it will affect us.
Clarke: Okay. Well, let us let you get on to your festivities. Congratulations on what you’ve accomplished so far in life. You’ve kept that house going, and you’ve got a good family.