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

The Darling Meat Processing Plant in Fresno, California, hits your nostrils before your eyes. There’s a deep, meaty aroma – the smell of thick gravy – layered with a metallic odor. Running underneath it all: a sickly sweet stench of rot and decay.

In the heat of summer, when temperatures hit 100 degrees, teachers at the local elementary school keep the windows shut; the insufferable heat pales in comparison.

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

Dr. Curry, who has suffered from asthma her whole life, spends a large amount of her time focusing on tracking her community’s health impacts in an attempt to prove that when low-income, ethnic minority communities live next to big polluting industries, they get sick.

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

Although she was inspired by her father to become a doctor, she couldn’t avoid the influence of her mother, the indomitable Mrs. Mary Curry. At 90 years old, Mrs. Curry, who also has asthma, has been a stalwart of the community’s fight against Darling for almost 60 years. Mrs. Curry has been so influential, in fact, that Rosa Parks traveled to Fresno in 1982 to award her a medal for community service. 

The elder Curry has fought against numerous local issues — pushing the California Office of Civil Rights to investigate Fresno’s deteriorating public schools in the 1970, seeing off a waste energy plant, and fighting for a college for West Fresno. But it is the meat processing plant that has been one of her biggest adversaries.

“Terrible,” Mrs. Curry says of the smell that has almost become the trademark of her community. “Dead bodies, dead animals. You can smell it on the way to church. They [the plant] have dead animals stacked up in bins out in the open, flies everywhere, dogs barking at the gate. They just don’t care.”

A History of Rendering

Owned by Darling Ingredients Inc., the plant, which has been in operation since 1947, processes up to 850,000 pounds of animal products a day. It takes byproducts, such as fat, bones, and other leftovers from slaughterhouses to process into animal food, fuel, and fertilizer. Last year, the Irving, Texas-based parent company, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, saw an almost 40% year-on-year growth in profits and reported $1.2 billion in net sales in its third quarter of 2021.

The Darling facility in Fresno first started 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 attracting of rats. 

The Darling facility. (Credit: Lucy Sheriff)

Despite multiple complaints from Mrs. Curry — who founded the grassroots advocacy group Concerned Citizens of West Fresno – and her neighbors, their calls went unheeded for decades. 

Finally, in 2005, when the plant applied for permission to render 1.5 million pounds of animal products a day, the campaigner asked the California Leadership Council, a nonprofit that specializes in bridging the gap between businesses and communities, for help in filing a lawsuit against the city and the plant. 

They agreed, and so began a lengthy fight to eject the plant from the neighborhood. 

“It was a battle royale from day one,” Mrs. Curry remembers. 

Talks began to relocate the plant. Residents were offered 20 acres of recreation land, surveys were carried out, but, at the 11th hour, the plant withdrew from the talks and announced it would shut down completely in five years. Curry and the lawyers bartered them down to three. The plant is now due to close in December 2023, and must pay residents $10,000 for every day it stays open past the deadline. 

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

Although the Curries consider the plant’s closure a win, Mrs. Curry recognizes: “We still have to live with them for another two years.”

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

Around 17,300 people live in this area, which is literally segregated from the rest of Fresno – where wealthier residents walk tree-lined leafy streets – by a railroad track.

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

The segregation of Southwest Fresno’s low-income, predominantly Black residents, is now compounded by Highway 99, dubbed “Fresno’s Berlin Wall” by one county official. Life expectancy in the neighborhoods under Highway 99 is 20 years lower than in nearby areas. In 2017, West Fresno was named the most “environmentally, socially and economically vulnerable place” in California while Fresno’s air quality is considered among the worst in the US. 

The Fight Continues

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

At the same time the Currys were battling to get the plant shut down, they were also fighting the city to get a share of a $70 million grant issued to Fresno as part of the Transformative Climate Communities program, which aimed to bring much needed funds to the state’s most impoverished neighborhoods. The lion’s share of the grant was initially earmarked to rebuild downtown; now, thanks to the Currys and their fellow advocates at the Concerned Citizens of West Fresno, West Fresno will receive a portion of the finances.

There’s also “zero trust” in both the plant and public officials, with residents on edge until the plant actually closes down, according to Ivanka Saunders, policy advocate at the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, a nonprofit that offers legal counsel and representation for low-income communities in Central California. Many fear that the city will go “gung ho with heavy 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 bussing her children across town to the white school to defy segregation, get her energy from?

“I don’t know,” she laughs. 

Her daughter has a theory. “I think it’s partly because she’s always been an activist, and she’s always been concerned about fairness and integrity,” Dr. Curry offers. “And so not to step in, is much more dangerous than to step in to fight.”

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

Mrs Curry, meanwhile, is “winding down” with activism, and handing the baton over to youths. 

Over the past few years, thousands of young people in the city have been getting involved in activism at a local level – peacefully protesting for climate justice, and organizing 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 sure of it. You have to have hope, otherwise you just give up.”

The plant has also begun slowing down operations – a fitting parallel to Mrs Curry’s activism. She and her West Fresno community will be satisfied to see it go – and hope that in its place will be a cleaner, greener future. ◼