clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Your Cyber Monday shopping is polluting this small town

New, 3 comments

Lawsuit and airport protest showcase the dark side of the e-commerce boom

A line of white trucks wait in traffic.
A line of trucks wait outside a distribution center in San Bernardino. A recent lawsuit and airport protest underscore community complaints about the growth of warehouses and traffic in the region.
Courtesy Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice

Enrique Jaime moved to Bloomington, California, in 2008 seeking something different. The 75-year-old retiree was sick of the traffic and pollution that came with living in Lynwood, near the ports, freeways, and refineries of Long Beach, and decided to move with his wife, Carmen, 64, to this more peaceful and rural area in San Bernardino County, about 50 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

“We wanted to enjoy a better life, with no traffic hassles,” he said.

Everything was good until the warehouses came. In the last decade, as the rapid growth of e-commerce has created a seemingly insatiable demand for logistics facilities, this portion of Southern California has become one of the nation’s largest hubs for warehouses. Even though it measures just 6 square miles, Bloomington already has four large warehouses within its boundaries, and plans were approved in 2017 to build a 680,000 square-foot facility 260 feet from Walter Zimmerman Elementary School.

Last September, the county approved construction of the Slover Distribution Center, a 334,000-square-foot facility set on 17 acres of re-zoned residential land at the corner of Slover and Laurel avenues, 550 feet from a high school and 50 feet from the property line of nearby homes, including the Jaimes’. “With this particular warehouse,” Jaime says, “our health will be diminished because of the diesel fumes.”

“There’s no bigger hotbed for this issue than the Inland Empire area of Los Angeles, which has seen a massive proliferation of warehouses,” says Adrian Martinez, a staff attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm. “There’s an appetite for more and more warehouses, taking more and more cargo. It’s under the guise of adding jobs, but if you look under the hood, it’s exacting a big toll on communities, and changing the landscape of the area.”

On October 26, 2018, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the San Bernardino Board of Supervisors on behalf of the local Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, alleging that the review process for the Slover project, specifically the 292-page environmental impact report, doesn’t meet the standard of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and didn’t properly factor in air pollution and traffic impacts. On December 2, 2019, Cyber Monday, environmental groups and residents will stage a large protest at an Amazon facility meant to push the company, rumored owner of a new $200 million air cargo logistics center at the nearby San Bernardino International Airport, to sign a legally enforceable Community Benefits Agreement that will help reduce pollution.

The lawsuit—which was settled earlier this year, without being able to stop construction of the Slover facility—and the cargo center protest highlight how, in a retail economy increasingly dictated by e-commerce and home delivery, the downsides can often be out of sight, and out of mind. The quickening pace of warehouse development—an additional 16.8 million square feet of warehouse space broke ground nationally during the third quarter of 2019, according to Cushman & Wakefield—and increased truck traffic, is often concentrated in smaller, rural areas, especially those near large metro areas.

“This will be one of those things, part of the shifting landscape of American consumerism,” says Martinez. “People often don’t think about, how does this package from Amazon, or rug from Target, get here. All along the way, there’s places where toxic pollution is essentially poisoning communities. There’s a growing frustration that this industry isn’t doing enough to clean up its act.”

Just like the Bloomington Industrial Facility, seen here, the Slover Distribution Center will be close to homes and schools.

How the warehouse boom is impacting rural communities

According to San Bernardino county’s public information officer, David Wert, logistics activity is a big factor in the county’s recent job growth. In Southern California, nearly all the fulfillment centers serving the e-commerce industry are in San Bernardino, he says. in 2017, the county’s logistics centers added 12,000 new jobs, a steep increase from the 4,500 added the year before, with a median pay of $48,000. The county has added roughly 84,000 jobs in the warehouse and logistics industry in the last decade, reshaping the local job market. Real estate brokerage CBRE said land costs in the county rose 35 percent in 2018 due to high demand.

The developer behind the Slover project, JM Realty, told the San Bernardino Sun that the project will generate $6 million in general fund revenue for the county by 2029 and create 290 temporary and permanent jobs.

Wert also says these new projects bring much-needed infrastructure upgrades to an unincorporated area with few sidewalks aging streets, and no sewer system. Every project is responsible for street improvements, landscaping, as well as intersection improvements and traffic control improvements.

According to Anthony Victoria-Midence, communications director for the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ), the local group that was party to the Slover lawsuit, that’s not enough.

“This is not pioneer development, this is polluting development,” he says. “The pollution outweighs the economic development. We don’t think it’ll provide any benefit. It may bring a couple new sidewalks or pave a couple new roads, but it won’t provide any real solution, it’ll provide more issues.”

Opponents of these warehouses point to the dangers of diesel pollution from a constant stream of trucks coming to and from these large facilities. Health studies have shown that children who live near heavy traffic, and are exposed to particulate pollution from heavy trucks and diesel engines, develop higher incidences of health problems such as asthma. Some physicians have gone so far as to call areas near distribution centers and highways “diesel death zones.” The Draft Environmental Impact Report for the Slover Project, which will have 162 truck docks, predicted the distribution center would add more than 1,000 trips per day to and from the busy I-10 and I-60 corridors. Victoria-Midence’s groups has gone so far as to ask for pollution caps for facilities and the electrification of delivery vehicles.

The Inland Empire is far from alone in feeling the effects of this industry’s rapid expansion. In Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, and Miami, the number of warehouses has grown by 20 percent since 2003. Due to their size and cost, there’s great economic incentive to locate them in less desirable, more inexpensive, suburban or rural areas. According to a study of warehouse locations in the greater Los Angeles area by Quan Yuan for the Union of Concerned Scientists, “low-income and medium-income minority neighborhoods contain a vast majority of warehouses and distribution centers.” A Brookings Institution report found that despite recent growth in the region, “a series of economic booms and busts have left the region with more residents but fewer good jobs.”

Bloomington has been hit particularly hard by the warehouse boom, according to Victoria-Midence. Warehouses have sprouted up in nearby Rialto and Fontana, serving companies such as Amazon, Target, and Walmart, which bring in increased truck traffic. Between San Bernardino and nearby Riverside County, Amazon has 14 large facilities in the region—the most of any metropolitan area in the U.S. In a region with scattered farmland and horses running through fields, these large warehouses are taking root close to schools and residences.

These areas have some of the worst air pollution in the state, so increased road usage, as well as idling diesel engines at warehouse facilities, contributes to an already-serious problem.

Bloomington residents who are against the warehouses—a 2017 survey by local economic development group IE2030 found that 75 percent of residents don’t want warehouses near homes—also argue they aren’t being fairly represented. Since the town is located in an unincorporated part of the county, which lacks a mayor or city council, land-use decisions are made by the County Board of Supervisors.

The region’s state representatives, Senator Connie Leyva and Assemblymember Eloise Gomez Reyes, agree, writing in a op-ed in the Inland Empire Community News that “the approval of the proposed warehouse in Bloomington by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors will further erode our quality of life and have serious health impacts on the hardworking community that will be most directly impacted by this project.” Local school board member Abigail Medina wrote an op-ed last week that “It is time for us to demand better for our schools, our children, and our community.”

“The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors acted with inconceivable neglect by approving a warehouse project that fails to consider the health and safety of Bloomington families,” Ericka Flores, senior organizer at CCAEJ, said in a statement. “Land use decisions should be made to benefit working class communities, not harm them.”

Bloomington residents protesting outside the San Bernardino County Government Center in February 2018.
Anthony Victoria

The side effects of e-commerce

The Slover facility represents just one project in the region’s continuing logistics boom. UPS started operating five cargo flights a week out of San Bernardino International Airport (two package handlers were killed in a tragic accident at the facility last week), and Ontario International Airport will allow service from Frontier and international carrier China Airlines, developments expected to fuel future growth. The forthcoming Eastgate Air Cargo Logistic Center and will add at least 24 around-the-clock air cargo flights and 7,516 vehicle trips daily, including 500 daily truck trips, according to estimates from CCAEJ.

A coalition of community groups, under the banner of San Bernardino Airport Communities, are asking for, among other things, soundproofing, air filters and double-paned windows for schools and residents, zero-emission delivery trucks, and limits on truck idling to reduce pollution.

According to Victoria-Midence, this isn’t just a Bloomington or San Bernardino issue. Areas such as Fresno have also seen rapid growth in logistics and warehouse facilities.

“We’re not pushing back against logistic workers and those involved in the industry, because it does provide a lot of jobs in our community,” he says. “At the same time, a lot of decisions have been made that aren’t responsible, the jobs aren’t as stable as promised, and the community hasn’t been consulted.”

When asked about the traffic impact of the warehouses last fall, Wert said the county would normally order order traffic studies on a project-by-project basis, so they’d have information on what would be needed to mitigate impacts, such as wider streets, altered traffic signals, and new freeway interchanges. But the county was currently in the midst of a massive update to the general plan, and is currently reviewing the entire road networks, warehouses and all.

“Short answer: We don’t have data that measures that, but we’re working on it,” he wrote.

Victoria-Midence says that the Jaimes aren’t alone; a number of Bloomington residents moved there from the LA area in search of a quieter lifestyle. The Jaimes specifically asked about the big, empty lot next to their home when they purchased their current house, the future site of the Slover project, and were told a home would be built there in the future.

Carmen has found that the traffic and pollution irritates her, and she has trouble breathing. Now the Jaimes are considering moving.

“When we lived in Lynwood, the traffic from trucks and trains and refineries had a huge affect on my respiratory health,” she said through a translator. “Once we moved to Bloomington, I was able to live and breathe better, and the environment is more peaceful and nice. That’s why I’m fighting hard against the warehouses in the community. It’s coming to the point where I’m going to have to choose to live in an area with cleaner air, or breathe in this toxicity.”