Venice Curry and Mary Curry fight for health equity at West Fresno

Dr. Venice Curry spoke out last year against industrial zoning, which she says harms the health of residents. (Credit: ValleyClimate Youtube channel)

The Darling meat processing plant in Fresno, California hits your nostrils before your eyes. There is a deep, meaty aroma – the smell of thick sauce – layered with a metallic smell. Running beneath it all: a sweetish smell of rotting and rotting.

In the heat of summer, when temperatures reach 100 degrees, teachers at the local primary school keep the windows closed; the unbearable heat pales in comparison.

“Dogs invade fences around gates because they can smell dead animals,” says Dr. Venice Curry, who spent her life in Southwest Fresno, one of California’s poorest communities. “And there are flies everywhere.”

Dr. Curry, who has suffered from asthma his entire life, spends much of his time focusing on monitoring the health impacts on his community in an effort to prove that when low-income ethnic minority communities live next to big polluting industries, they get sick.

Marie Curry
Mary Curry, accepting an award in 2020 from the California Environmental Justice Alliance. (Credit: CEJA Youtube channel)

Although she was inspired by her father to become a doctor, she could not avoid the influence of her mother, the indomitable Mrs. Mary Curry. At 90, Ms Curry, who also suffers from asthma, has been a mainstay in the community’s fight against Darling for almost 60 years. Mrs. Curry was so influential, in fact, that Rosa Parks visited Fresno in 1982 to present her with a medal for community service.

The elder Curry fought many local issues – pushing the California Civil Rights Office to investigate the deterioration of public schools in Fresno in the 1970s, seeing a waste plant and fighting for a college in West Fresno . But it was the meat processing plant that was one of its biggest opponents.

“Terrible,” Ms. Curry says of the smell that has almost become a hallmark of her community. “Corpses, dead animals. You can feel it on the way to church. They [the plant] having dead animals piled up in dumpsters out in the open, flies everywhere, dogs barking at the door. They just don’t care.

A history of rendering

Owned by Darling Ingredients Inc., the plant, in operation since 1947, processes up to 850,000 pounds of animal products per day. It takes by-products, such as fat, bones and other leftovers from slaughterhouses to turn them into animal feed, fuel and fertilizer. Last year, the Irving, Texas-based parent company, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, posted nearly 40% year-over-year profit growth and posted a net revenue of $1.2 billion in the third quarter of 2021.

The Darling plant in Fresno began operating as a meat processing plant before switching to rendering in 1953 – despite vocal opposition from the predominantly black community. Rendering has very different impacts than processing, including noxious fumes, runoff waste and the attraction of rats.

The Darling Establishment. (Credit: Lucy Sheriff)

Despite multiple complaints from Ms Curry – who founded the West Fresno Concerned Citizens advocacy group – and her neighbours, their pleas went unheeded for decades.

Finally, in 2005, when the factory asked for permission to return 1.5 million pounds of animal products a day, the activist asked the California Leadership Council, a nonprofit organization that specializes in reducing of the divide between businesses and communities, to help him take legal action against the city and the factory.

They agreed and thus began a long fight to eject the factory from the neighborhood.

“It was a battle royale from day one,” Ms Curry recalled.

Talks have begun to move the factory. Residents were offered 20 acres of recreational land, polls were taken, but, at the 11th hour, the factory pulled out of talks and announced it would close completely in five years. Curry and the lawyers swapped them down to three. The factory is now due to close in December 2023 and must pay residents $10,000 for each day it remains open past the deadline.

For his part, acknowledging that he had agreed to close the facility, a spokesperson for Darling told The Story Exchange: “We operate our facilities to the highest standards and in compliance with all rules and regulations. applicable regulations.”

Although the Currys see the plant closure as a victory, Ms. Curry acknowledges: “We still have to live with them for another two years. »

It’s hard, Dr Curry admits, to prove a link between the plant and residents’ respiratory health problems, simply because there are so many other pollutants in the city, from chicken processing plants to slaughterhouses. and at dumps. Nearly 20% of Fresno’s children have asthma, made worse by the bowl-shaped topography that ensures air pollution from trucks, industry, and pesticides is in the valley. In West Fresno, infant mortality is 12.3%; “It’s a third world country number,” Dr. Curry points out.

About 17,300 people live in this area, which is literally separated from the rest of Fresno — where wealthier residents walk leafy, tree-lined streets — by a train line.

Historians call it a racist legacy from the late 1800s, when white residents of Fresno agreed not to rent or sell land east of the tracks — where they lived — to ethnic minority immigrants. In the 1950s, almost all black Fresnans lived west of the tracks.

The segregation of low-income, mostly black southwest Fresno residents is now compounded by Highway 99, dubbed “Fresno’s Berlin Wall” by a county official. Life expectancy in neighborhoods under Highway 99 is 20 years less than in surrounding neighborhoods. In 2017, West Fresno was named California’s “most environmentally, socially and economically vulnerable place” while Fresno’s air quality is considered one of the worst in the United States.

The fight goes on

Despite this upcoming closure of Darling Meat Processing, the fight is far from over. The powerful mother-daughter duo orchestrate a battle against land use zoning to ensure the neighborhood is protected from the opening of industrial facilities in the future.

At the same time the Currys were fighting to shut down the plant, they were also fighting the city for a share of a $70 million grant to Fresno under the Transformative Climate Communities program, which aimed to bring much-needed funds to the poorest neighborhoods in the state. The lion’s share of the grant was initially intended to rebuild the city centre; now, thanks to the Currys and their fellow Concerned Citizens of West Fresno advocates, West Fresno will receive a portion of the funding.

According to Ivanka Saunders, political attorney at the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, a nonprofit that provides legal advice and representation for low-income communities in central California. Many fear the city will get carried away with intensive industrial land uses instead of saying ‘this community deserves to thrive,’” she says.

So where does Mrs. Curry, an asthmatic nonagenarian who grew up in Alabama and insisted on busing her children across town to white school to challenge segregation, get her energy?

“I don’t know,” she laughs.

His daughter has a theory. “I think that’s partly because she’s always been an activist and always cared about fairness and integrity,” says Dr. Curry. “And so not intervening is much more dangerous than intervening to fight.”

Dr. Curry herself is reluctant to let her guard down. “We have to constantly monitor our officials to make sure they are doing what is right for us.”

Ms Curry, meanwhile, is “calming down” with activism and passing the baton to young people.

Over the past few years, thousands of the city’s youth have become involved in grassroots activism – peacefully protesting for climate justice and hosting virtual events alongside the Citizens’ Climate Lobby Fresno branch.

“I’ve seen a lot of injustice in my life – I grew up in Alabama after all. Change won’t happen overnight, it won’t happen in my lifetime but it will happen, I’m all for it. You have to have hope, otherwise you give up.

The factory also began to slow down its operations – a fitting parallel to Ms Curry’s activism. She and her community of West Fresno will be happy to see it go – and hope that in its place there will be a cleaner, greener future. ◼

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