Central Valley fares poorly in new California pollution index

phecht@sacbee.comApril 24, 2013 

Central Valley communities are among the hardest hit in California under a unique new misery index that provides statewide mapping on community pollution, health and well-being.

The state Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday unveiled a new environmental screening tool that reveals – by ZIP code – how neighborhoods are affected by pesticides, truck fumes, hazardous waste and other toxic factors.

The index also tracks community health and well-being, based on such things as the number of residents living in poverty, their education levels and rates of asthma.

Under state legislation passed last year, disadvantaged communities afflicted by pollution can reap grants and investments – indirectly funded by polluting industries – to help neighborhood and environmental health.

Apparently standing first in line as the unhealthiest, most polluted ZIP code in California is an agribusiness region in Fresno: 93706. There, poverty ranks in the 97th percentile, residents' asthma rates rank in the 99th percentile, and pesticide pollution ranks in the 91st percentile of 1,769 ZIP codes in the state.

Two other Fresno ZIP codes and three from Stockton also crack the top 10 list of the most unhealthy ZIP codes in the environmental index. Seven of the 10 worst come from the San Joaquin Valley.

"We know that the Central Valley has some of the poorest air quality as well as some of the highest unemployment," said Ryan Young, legal counsel for the Greenlining Institute, a public policy group focusing on solutions for low-income and minority communities in California. "It's no surprise that some of these communities will show up as priorities for intervention."

That intervention will come in the form of community improvement and environmental cleanup investments paid out of a special state Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.

The fund collects money from businesses that buy carbon offsets as the cost of exceeding California air emission standards under 2006 state global warming legislation, Assembly Bill 32.

Last year's follow-up, Senate Bill 535, requires that 10 percent of that money be spent in disadvantaged communities that "already face disproportionate impacts from substandard air quality in the form of higher rates of respiratory illness, hospitalizations and premature death."

State EPA officials said about half of the top 10 percent of most polluted communities in California can be found in the greater Los Angeles region. The L.A.-area industrial community of Vernon ranked as the fourth-worst ZIP code in California based on environmental screening data.

According to the community health mapping – called CalEnviroScreen – one south Sacramento County neighborhood ranked as the state's 34th unhealthiest ZIP code.

The area, ZIP code 95828, east of Stockton Boulevard, south of Elder Creek Road and north of Calvine Road, includes nearly 58,000 people and industrial sites including a carbon fiber plant.

The area ranks in the 96th percentile for hazardous waste pollution, in the 67th percentile for poverty and the 90th percentile for asthma.

Ajane Usher, 13, who watched her younger brothers play Tuesday at the area's Countryside Community Park, said she just knows there are days when breathing is difficult. She and her siblings all suffer from asthma.

"The air here is bad," Usher said. "We have to take medicines before we go outside."

Some business interests criticized the new indexing program, saying it can lead to false assumptions about the actual sources of pollution affecting communities.

In a February letter to the state EPA, the California Farm Bureau Federation said the new state indexing program and maps "incorrectly portray that the adverse health conditions in a community are a result of direct exposure from pollution."

While the data don't say where the pollution comes from, wrote Farm Bureau environmental affairs director Cynthia Cory, "Anyone using your tool will look at the maps and quickly assume their cancer or asthma is a direct result of traffic density, solid waste storage, pesticide use, etc."

California EPA spokesman Sam Delson said the environmental health screening index, which compiles ZIP code data on 11 types of pollution and seven socio-economic factors, isn't about creating negative rankings.

"That's not how we look at it," Delson said. "The goal is a science-based look at the combined effects of multiple pollutants and stressors, such as population characteristics. The idea is not to have a ranking but to identify communities that have high levels of burdens and vulnerabilities and to prioritize resources to address those concerns."

Call The Bee's Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539. Richard Chang and Phillip Reese contributed to this report.

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