Valley's poor, Latino towns such as Huron can't get state aid

The Fresno BeeMay 26, 2013 

HURON -- At 5:30 a.m., the main drag here fills with campesinos -- farmworkers facing another sweaty day at low pay. Fieldwork is the main occupation in poverty-plagued Huron.

The 98% Latino city might seem the poster child for disadvantaged communities in California.

It is poorest among cities in the state, according to U.S. Census numbers, and fourth-poorest in California by a state analysis released this year. The analysis also shows that Huron is third-worst for education -- three-quarters of residents older than 25 don't have a high school diploma.

Yet the city of nearly 7,000 does not qualify as a disadvantaged community on the fast track for a piece of the money being raised in the state's efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. The money might be used for all kinds of projects to improve the city.

But the fast track to funding is all about health risk, and it takes more than poverty, lack of education and a community of color to be on it. About 20 health-risk factors are considered, including low birth weights, traffic density and exposure to toxic chemical releases.

Rosa Moreno, 45, who grew up in Huron and works with a Latino group to improve the city, says she can't believe Huron doesn't qualify as a disadvantaged community with extreme health risks.

"Huron needs the help," Moreno says. "Why isn't Huron on that list?"

Huron in southwest Fresno County is not the only Valley poverty pocket that didn't qualify for the fast track.

This look at Huron and other poor Latino communities is part of The Bee's series Living in a Toxic Land, an ongoing investigation of environmental risks that confront the San Joaquin Valley.

More than half of California's 20 poorest ZIP codes are in the Valley. Most are Latino-dominated. But they do not have enough health risks to be on the list, according to the state.

Like many rural areas, Huron has its own local problems. Soil containing naturally occurring asbestos just outside of town. For decades, a creek has flooded periodically and blocked Lassen Avenue, dropping more and more asbestos-laced sediment from the mountains to the west.

Asbestos fibers are linked to lung cancer. Are they harming Huron residents? Past state investigations have concluded the danger is minimal, but residents still wonder.

Sitting in the El Michoacano restaurant in Huron, Moreno says all kinds of health problems are widespread here -- asthma, heart problems, cancer. She suffered a cancerous thyroid tumor.

"A lot of people have trouble breathing here," said Moreno. "There are pesticides in the fields all around."

Pesticide exposure is among the 20 factors the California Environmental Protection Agency considered when analyzing health risks. But, like poverty, it is only one factor in assessing the risk.

Using its analysis, EPA this year released an online health screening tool, ranking the risk in more than 1,700 ZIP codes. The tool has been hit 130,000 times as Californians check on their own neighborhoods.

The ZIP codes among the top 10% riskiest will be considered a high priority for funding from the state's greenhouse gas cap-and-trade auctions.

The money comes from businesses buying credits to meet state greenhouse gas emission targets. The auctions are raising millions of dollars, but no specific spending plan has emerged yet.

California Rural Legal Assistance, which represents rural communities, has suggested expanding public transit, providing energy-efficiency upgrades to homes and training residents for green jobs.

Many activists like the state's work on the new health-screening tool, but they are keeping an eye on where the money goes. They say the state EPA's analysis is skewed toward disadvantaged communities in urban settings.

"Why are so many disadvantaged rural communities excluded?" asked Northern California sociologist Jonathan Kusel in a written comment to EPA.

EPA leaders say it is not surprising that about half of the 10% riskiest places are in Southern California around the greater Los Angeles area. The region is home to half the state's population, they say.

In fact, state leaders have heard surprise that rural agricultural areas have so many communities in the top 10%, Sam Delson, EPA spokesman, said. He noted nearly a third of the 10% riskiest places are in the San Joaquin Valley.

Valley ZIP codes among the top 10% in risk include West Fresno and Selma in Fresno County, Kettleman City and Stratford in Kings County and Atwater and El Nido in Merced County. There are others in Tulare, Madera and San Joaquin counties.

When asked why some of the poorest Valley communities, such as Huron, were excluded, Delson said the tool was designed to analyze all the factors. It's deceptive to look just at poverty.

"We think it's a good example of why looking at one indicator at a time is not a particularly useful way of understanding an area's burdens and vulnerabilities," he said.

But the screening tool should be tweaked, said CRLA lawyer Phoebe Seaton. Aside from excluding some poor rural communities of color, it also masks the needs of disadvantaged towns in the same ZIP code as affluent cities.

She said, "We are confident that the state will make necessary changes."

Poverty, lack of education and shorter lives are defining features in rural Valley communities.

Compared to more affluent Valley areas, people in many rural communities die a decade earlier, according to a Fresno State study. "Place matters for health in the San Joaquin Valley," the study says.

On the west side of Fresno County, the ZIP codes of five other communities join Huron among the poorest 20 ZIP codes in the state. The communities include Raisin City, Five Points, Mendota, Tranquillity and Cantua Creek.

In Tulare County, Richgrove and Alpaugh are among the state's 20 poorest. In Kern County, it's Arvin. In Merced County, it's South Dos Palos.

None qualified as disadvantaged communities with the highest risk.

Back at El Michoacano in Huron, Rosa Moreno says she left the town years ago and now lives in the Kings County community of Avenal. She still comes to Huron regularly as a volunteer with Valley LEAP (Latino Environmental Advancement Project).

"There's no money in Huron," Moreno said. "People used to get a $20 voucher for transportation, especially when they needed medical attention. Not now."

Huron has medical clinics, and one of them has a pharmacy. Otherwise, people must go to surrounding cities for prescription medication.

Doctor visits here are rushed, says resident Lupe Aviña, 49, and sometimes medical problems don't get addressed.

"People leave Huron for almost everything they need," Aviña said. "You go to Hanford for groceries, gas, shopping and a lot of other things."

The children of Huron are the biggest concern, say Aviña and Moreno. Another resident, Lydia Ramirez, 39, said the city needs to clean up parks, build a high school and encourage children to pursue education.

But here in the middle of world-class agriculture, there's no spark for change, she said. "It's sad. People don't care about Huron."


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6316, mgrossi@fresnobee.com or @markgrossi on Twitter.

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