In the United States, the e-commerce surge witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic sparked investment in logistics infrastructure, most notably in warehousing. Despite a potential slowdown in the logistics industry this year, the warehouse boom is ongoing.
Industry giants such as Amazon have been setting up warehouses in the Southern California hinterland, where affordable sites are close to two of the world’s busiest ports. As of 2021, there were over 4,000 warehouses in the Inland Empire region, spanning over a billion square feet.
While developers tout the logistics projects as job creators, environmental and community advocates are sounding the alarm about the facilities’ destructive impacts.
“It is a situation where we keep investing in polluting infrastructure that is specially organized to impact largely poor people of color, most of whom are Latino,” Susan Phillips, a professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer College, told DW. “Their kids come home with bloody noses from playing outside. They miss days of school because of asthma attacks.”
Advocates have called on the state government to implement a moratorium on warehouse construction to analyze their impacts and craft solutions.
Warehouse hub or ‘sacrifice zone’?
Diesel trucks, trains and airplanes transport 40% of the nation’s goods through the Inland Empire, and researchers and community groups believe the resultant pollution is making people sick. “It’s what people have called a sacrifice zone,” said Phillips.
According to “Warehouse CITY,” a project spearheaded by Pitzer College’s Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability, which Phillips directs, the region’s warehouses generate over 600,000 truck trips a day. Annually, the operations release over 300,000 pounds of diesel particulate matter (PM), 30 million pounds of nitric oxide and 15 billion pounds of CO2.
A report by the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ), the Robert Redford Conservancy, and the Sierra Club points to abnormally high rates of cancer, asthma, and other diseases in the Inland Empire’s San Bernardino and Riverside counties. These counties have some of the worst air quality in the country.
Ana Gonzalez, executive director of CCAEJ, first became involved in environmental activism after her son developed asthma in 2015, at the beginning of the warehouse boom. Gonzalez and her family had been living next to a cement plant and other “dirty” industries in north Rialto, California.
“I thought I wasn’t keeping [my son] safe, or I wasn’t feeding him right or something,” Gonzalez told DW. She finally asked his pediatrician why he was having to go to the hospital five times a year for bronchitis and pneumonia. “Sure enough, the test came back that he was developing asthma due to PM 2.5.”
As an educator at the time, Gonzalez had already noted that nearly half of her students required inhalers. Indeed, hundreds of Inland Empire warehouses are within 1,500 feet of schools, according to Warehouse CITY.
Warehouse developers and supporting politicians pitched warehouses to inland communities, many of which are predominantly poor and Latino, as vehicles for economic development.
In a January op-ed for The Press Enterprise, San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors member Curt Hagman argued that “warehousing and logistics centers are an essential component in freight movement and a major job-creating industry in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.”
Manfred Keil, chief economist for the Inland Empire Economic Partnership (IEEP), told DW that the logistics sector added 80,000 jobs in the Inland Empire since February 2020, or two-thirds of all new employment.
But Phillips, Gonzalez and other advocates say the environmental costs and poor quality of the jobs far outstrip any gains.
“What we see is from birth this kind of cycles into compounding forms of illness and disability,” Phillips explained. Kids born with low lung capacity or cognitive issues due to pollution are thrust into schools located near warehouses, further harming their health. Phillips adds that the kids are then recruited to work in warehouses, where they are made to perform physically taxing jobs, resulting in high rates of disability.
Research has shown that warehouse workers at Amazon, a major player in the region, experience serious injuries at double the rate of other companies.
Gonzalez and Phillips also stressed that the wages workers receive are inadequate. “These jobs are basically locking the entire population into poverty, $17 or $18 an hour,” said Phillips.
Gonzalez explained that many Inland Empire communities are targeted by logistics companies precisely because they have few other options for economic development.
The region’s overdependence on warehouses is another worry, as it leaves it susceptible to demand shocks. “You would never invest your stocks in the way this region has invested in warehouses,” Phillips said.
A coordinated solution
Community groups across the region have been trying to fend off the building of warehouses in their specific localities. But advocates have realized that approach is unsustainable.
In January, CCAEJ, the Robert Redford Conservancy, and dozens of other environmental and community groupscalled on California Governor Gavin Newsom in a letter to declare a public health state of emergency in the Inland Empire and implement a two-year regional moratorium on warehouse construction.
“We have a right to a life not impacted by asthma, heart disease, cognitive and reproductive problems related to pollution exposure,” the letter said. “We have a right to not be made sick by the air we breathe.”
Some business organizations in the state, however, disagree with the demand to suspend warehouse construction.
“A moratorium without a proper cost-benefit analysis will have serious economic consequences,” wrote Keil of IEEP in an email to DW. He argues that “restricting employment in logistics would particularly hurt socio-economic groups which the report claims to help.”
The letter to Newsom included other demands, such as the conducting of more research on impacted communities and the creation of higher standards of construction approval.
“Our hope is that a moratorium is declared so we can look at the science behind all of this,” said Gonzalez. “So we can look at the plans of cities and counties and look for solutions where building warehouses doesn’t come at the expense of human life.”
Edited by: Ashutosh Pandey
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