World's biggest Amazon warehouse raises fears over toxic air

Packaged products are scanned at an Amazon Fulfilment Center

Packaged products are scanned at an Amazon Fulfilment Center in Tracy, California, August 3, 2015. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

What’s the context?

Warehouses in California's Inland Empire are mushrooming in tandem with the nation's e-commerce habit, angering local residents.

  • E-commerce fuels warehouse building boom near Los Angeles
  • Truck traffic, loss of open land angers local residents
  • Industry backers cite job creation, economic benefits

LOS ANGELES - Standing at his farm gate in the Inland Empire - a sprawling series of communities east of Los Angeles, California - Randy Beckerage gestures down the street to a construction site rising above an old cattle yard.

It will soon be a nearly 4.1 million square foot (380,000 square meter) Amazon warehouse - a five-story structure billed by logistics experts as the e-commerce giant's largest such facility in the world.

Business groups, some local unions and government officials say such sites bring jobs and economic development. Others, like Beckerage, object to the growing network of warehouses covering former agricultural land and bringing traffic and air pollution.

"I don't know how to stop the steamroller," said Beckerage, who has campaigned against the new warehouse and would instead like to see a network of climate-friendly food production.

"This is prime farmland - we can't just pave it. We have a moral responsibility to preserve it."

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Amazon did not respond to request for comment. In a 2021 report the company said it had created 40,000 jobs in the region.

An estimated 40% of all consumer goods in the United States pass through the region, arriving in the nearby ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, traveling by truck and train to warehouses, where they are then dispatched nationwide.

An explosion in e-commerce has fueled a boom in warehousing. Amazon did not have any warehouses in the Inland Empire in 2012, but now operates dozens of facilities in the area, according to data compiled by nonprofit organization Consumer Reports.

Other companies with major e-commerce arms - including Walmart, Target, and Costco - also stage logistics operations in the region.

'Out of balance'

There are more than 4,000 warehouses in the Inland Empire counties of San Bernardino and in Riverside County, environmental researchers have found.

They contribute to more than 1 million heavy truck trips a day through Southern California, showed the data, compiled by Susan Phillips, a professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer college, and environmental data consultancy Radical Research.

San Bernardino and Riverside are ranked by the American Lung Association as the two most polluted counties in the country for ozone pollution, and many residents say allowing further truck traffic would have dire consequences.

"I live in a home that shakes from the impact of the trucks, and my own health is now at risk," said Nora Garcia, a member of the city council of Pomona who is proposing a moratorium on warehouse construction in the city.

The development that includes the new giant Amazon warehouse being built near Beckerage's home in the city of Ontario, San Bernardino County, would produce 3,520 daily truck trips, according to documents submitted as part of its environmental review.

Disputes over warehouse expansion are erupting across the region, activists say.

"Community members get in touch with us nearly every day - worried about a new warehouse project," said Ana Gonzalez, executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ), a group opposing new warehouses.

"Our communities are way out of balance," she said.

Those in favor of developing the sector in Inland Empire say it can be harnessed for public good.

"We need to find a way to coexist," said Paul Granillo, chief executive of the Inland Empire Economic Partnership, a business organization whose members include numerous logistics firms.

He said communities can change zoning rules if they want - and the proliferation of warehouse projects indicates strong local support, in particular from local trade unions who welcome the extra construction jobs.

"As a warehouse operator, we try to be a good neighbor and a good steward," said BJ Patterson, CEO of Pacific Mountain Logistics, which operates a warehouse in San Bernardino.

He added, though, that communities are right to be wary of developments that are too close to homes and schools.

Community battles

The CCAEJ tracks warehouse proposals across nine cities in the Inland Empire and tries to slow them down, force changes to make them more amenable to neighbors, and curb their environmental impact.

Despite nearly a dozen attempts, it has never successfully blocked a warehouse development, though it has helped force some developments to adopt environmental mitigation efforts, such as planting trees.

At a meeting in Bloomington, San Bernardino, in July, residents pleaded with officials to intervene in a recently announced deal to sell the site of an elementary school if the county greenlights a warehouse expansion plan.

The school was already surrounded by warehouses, and the local school board projected that in 30 years, the air would be too toxic for children to breathe.

The proposed plan of sale would move the school a few blocks away and net $45 million to upgrade the facility.

Kareem Gongora, a planning commissioner with San Bernardino County, said cities in the county have dozens of warehousing projects in their development pipeline.

"Pushing back can be next to impossible," he said.

Plans to electrify the truck fleet and modernize the region's infrastructure could help mitigate the impact, he said.

"But it still ends up being marginalized people who are most impacted."

Bans under consideration

More than half a dozen cities in the region have considered some form of warehousing moratorium in recent years.

Jurupa Valley, an Inland Empire city that is home to 139 warehouses, is putting forward an ordinance that would bar new truck-intensive developments from most areas.

A law that would force large warehouses to keep a 1,000-foot (305-meter) buffer between homes, schools, daycare centers, playgrounds, health centers and other places especially at risk from air pollution stalled in July in California's legislature.

A 2021 report by the environmental group Earth Justice found that 640 schools within the broader southern basin region of California are within half a mile of a warehouse.

Acquanetta Warren, the mayor of Fontana city and a warehouse proponent, said moratoriums are a mistake.

"You can live, play, and work in Fontana," she said, citing a report the city commissioned that showed that air quality was improving in the city.

"You can't environmentalist away from the fact that people need to work and they need products."

For Beckerage, paving over farmland for warehouses represents a missed chance to improve the health of residents and build greener infrastructure.

He hopes his city considers a plan recently put forward to create a dedicated agricultural zone as a buffer against warehouse expansion.

"If they gobble up this prime farmland, we will have lost a big opportunity," he said.

This story was updated on Aug. 8 to clarify in par 15 that 3,520 daily truck trips will be from the entire development, not just the Amazon warehouse.

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