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'Treated like sacrifices': Families breathe toxic fumes from California's warehouse hub

"The industry is booming. But the cost is seen through people's asthma, people's cancer and the lack of good jobs," said one local advocate.
A truck leaves an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Eastvale, Calif. on Nov. 12, 2020.
A truck leaves an Amazon fulfillment center in Eastvale, Calif. on Nov. 12, 2020.Watchara Phomicinda / Orange County Register /

On a recent weekend, when Ana Gonzalez was driving through Rialto, California, where she has lived for 23 years, she saw a disturbing and increasingly familiar sight. Dozens of 18-wheel diesel trucks idled outside an Amazon warehouse, spewing fumes not far from a high school and homes. It made Gonzalez so angry that she took out her phone to broadcast the scene to her Facebook page.

Gonzalez's frustration with the high concentration of warehouses and the truck traffic they bring was spurred two years ago when she took one of her two kids, Jose, then 12, to the doctor because he was constantly coughing and getting sick. She said the doctor told her that Jose's bronchitis and developing asthma were direct results of local pollution.

Rialto is in an area east of Los Angeles commonly known as the Inland Empire, where warehouses that ship online orders from companies like Amazon and Walmart have proliferated in the last decade. As the warehouses arrived, the air quality worsened, Gonzalez said. San Bernardino and Riverside County, which form the bulk of the Inland Empire, consistently rank as having the worst air pollution in the country, according to the American Lung Association.

"Now, as the years go by, he's getting more bronchitis. We've been able to keep the asthma controlled. But the doctor said his health issues are due to the air quality in our town," said Gonzalez, who is the finance and admin director with the nonprofit the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. "We have no history of respiratory problems in our family."

IMAGE: Ana Gonzalez with Jose, her son
Ana Gonzalez with Jose, her son.Ana Gonzalez

Amazon alone has built 19 facilities, including fulfillment and air cargo centers, in the Inland Empire since 2012, the company confirmed. Walmart has at least six facilities, according to United for Respect, a nonprofit workers rights group. More warehouses have meant more large trucks driving in and out of the predominantly Black, Latino, immigrant and low-income neighborhoods where the facilities are based. And all that traffic has correlated with a rise in dangerous air quality and subsequent respiratory health problems that hit communities of color the hardest, including asthma, bronchitis and cancer, according to a report this month by the People's Collective for Environmental Justice, researchers at the University of Redlands and other local groups. These communities are, the report shows, those that least benefit from the convenience of Amazon's two-day delivery promise.

"Who is ultimately paying the cost of free shipping? Is it the developers building these warehouses? Absolutely not," said Anthony Victoria, a local advocate for the People's Collective for Environmental Justice. "The industry is booming. But the cost is seen through people's asthma, people's cancer and the lack of good jobs."

IMAGE: Anthony Victoria
Anthony Victoria.Noe Montes

The report recommends adopting stricter air quality regulations that are up for a vote by the board of the region's air quality monitor on May 7. They would require warehouse operators to reduce their local emissions output or pay fines.

Conditions have become so problematic that workers within Amazon have raised concerns about the company's handling of air quality issues in the area.

"Families in the Inland Empire are being treated like sacrifices," said Emily Cunningham, a founding member of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, which is made up of corporate and tech workers at Amazon. "It's as if their lives don't matter as much, and that's wrong and needs to be stood up against. It's unacceptable." Cunningham is no longer an employee; federal labor regulators ruled recently that she was illegally fired last year for her internal activism.

Walmart declined to comment for this article.

Amazon defended its work in the Inland Empire region. "We're proud to have created more than 40,000 good jobs in the region with industry-leading pay and benefits and are investing heavily to build an environmentally sustainable business and support the communities where we live and work," Amazon spokesperson Xavier Van Chau said. "That's why we co-founded the Climate Pledge — a commitment to be net-zero carbon across our business operations 10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement and to power our operations with 100 percent renewable energy by 2025."

Amazon, which is the region's largest employer, announced in 2019 that it will deploy 100,000 electric vehicles for its last-mile delivery operations by 2030. Some are scheduled to be tested for the first time in Los Angeles this year.

But that is unlikely to have much impact in the Inland Empire, where pollution is generated by larger freight trucks. In February, Amazon ordered 700 medium and heavy-duty cargo trucks that run on low-emission compressed natural gas to test as an alternative to its U.S. fleet of diesel trucks. But that's a fraction of the 30,000 trucks the company has and the 30,000 partner trucks it contracts out, and Amazon doesn't specify where those vehicles will go. The company said it has also installed 135 solar rooftops at its facilities around the world and invested in off-site renewable energy projects to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.

An Amazon truck makes its way along Interstate 5, towards downtown Los Angeles on June 28, 2019.
An Amazon truck makes its way along Interstate 5 towards downtown Los Angeles in 2019.Richard Vogel / AP file

Recent growth

The expansion of the logistics industry in the Inland Empire seemed like a lifeline after the 2008 global economic crisis. Since 2010, more than 174 million square feet of industrial space, the vast majority of which is occupied by warehouses, has been built in the Inland Empire, according to the real estate services company CBRE. The growth brought some jobs, but research shows that many of the jobs don't pay living wages, and poverty levels remain high in the region, particularly among Black and Latino communities, the report by the People's Collective for Environmental Justice highlights.

The growth also brought warehouse development projects closer to people's homes, in some cases right up against their backyards, despite warnings from state air quality regulators to keep homes more than 1,000 feet from distribution centers because of truck traffic.

While many warehousing companies are drawn to the Inland Empire, Amazon is one of the most high-profile and fastest growing. In addition to its warehouses, the company is expanding the San Bernardino airport with an enormous logistics hub. The 700,000-square-foot facility is expected to bring 26 additional flights and 500 truck trips per day, which will collectively emit 1 ton of daily air pollution, according to an environmental assessment by the airport authority.

Van Chau, the Amazon spokesperson, said Amazon will install a solar rooftop and use electric ground service equipment at the airport.

But that's not enough for local officials. In February 2020, Xavier Becerra, then the state attorney general, sued the Federal Aviation Administration, the San Bernardino Airport Authority and the real estate developer for unlawfully greenlighting the expansion without sufficiently examining its environmental impact.

At the time, Becerra said the defendants had "ignored months of warnings of the significant health risks to residents of this area."

"We filed this lawsuit because 'business as usual' — the kind that hurts low-income, disadvantaged communities — is no longer an option," he said.

Eileen Hards, a spokesperson for Amazon, noted that Amazon was not named as a party in the lawsuit and declined to comment further.

Breathing troubles

Air quality has been poor in the region for decades, in part because the landscape forms a basin where smog lingers. The boom in warehousing, compounded by more frequent wildfires, has intensified the problem over the last decade, correlating with high rates of respiratory disease, particularly among children.

"The pollution not only affects them in terms of respiratory health, such as asthma, but pollution like the type we see around these freeways and warehouses will also reduce lung development for children," said Dr. Afif El-Hasan, a pediatrician in Southern California and expert with the American Lung Association. "So it's hurting them in the short run and the long run by not allowing them to have full development of their lungs like they would have in healthy air."

From 2016 to 2018, the rate of emergency room visits for asthma and pneumonia in San Bernardino nearly doubled the rate statewide, according to data collected by the Tracking California project of the Public Health Institute, a California-based nonprofit focusing on health equity. Likewise, rates of ER visits for pneumonia in Rialto, where Gonzalez lives, were 44 percent higher than the state's average.

Because many of the communities alongside busy transportation routes and warehouses are low-income, they are disproportionately affected by the industrial growth. "Those with lower socioeconomics tend to be more exposed to what's around them, and many of them know that's what's making it difficult to breathe, but they don't have the luxury to pick up and leave," said Dr. Laren Tan, medical director of the Loma Linda University Health Comprehensive Program for Obstructive Airway Disease.

Political pressures

Jorge Osvaldo Heredia, 30, has lived in San Bernardino since he was 15. When he's not working as director for an arts center, he tends fava beans, strawberries and tomatoes in a community garden that was started during the pandemic. It's on the same street as the new Amazon Air depot. On a clear day in winter after some rainfall, the hills around San Bernardino look beautiful, he said.

"But right now I can't see them," he said. "We are sitting in the smog, and it's only going to get worse as the summer heats up."

He's one of many community members concerned that local politicians aren't hearing them.

Elizabeth Sena, founder of the South Fontana Concerned Citizens Coalition, said: "Even in the midst of a housing shortage, the city has allowed these developers to come in and rezone residential areas for industrial use. The city is offering money to property owners to buy their homes and build warehouses there when we need housing."

South Fontana, Sena said, is made up predominantly of Latinos and people of color, and more warehouses are being developed.

San Bernardino City Council member Ben Reynoso, 28, said he's listening. He said he's had enough with the warehouses popping up in the city, bringing mostly poor-quality jobs and hordes of trucks.

Last month he proposed a citywide moratorium on building warehouses. If it is approved, the moratorium would give the city time to focus on reducing emissions and diversifying employment and development in the region.

"We have too many warehouses," he said, saying there are at least 72 in the city. "The city is being bled dry with no infrastructure updates because no responsibility is being placed on developers."

Reynoso has faced opposition from other council members, including Fred Shorett, who told The Sun newspaper of San Bernardino that the moratorium was "the worst message to send to the development community." Another dissenting member suggested folding measures to mitigate environmental harms of warehouses into the city's general plan, rather than cast them as separate items.

New rules

But Reynoso and many other community members are hopeful that the proposed rules drafted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the local air quality regulator, could have even more impact than the moratorium.

The proposed regulations would require warehouses and distribution centers that are 100,000 square feet or larger to adopt measures to reduce the emissions that are released locally, such as by switching to low- or zero-emission trucks and equipment. If the warehouses don't comply, they would be fined.

The agency estimates that the rule would lead to substantial public health benefits, including 150 to 300 fewer deaths and up to 5,800 fewer asthma attacks if it is implemented from 2022 to 2031. There could be economic benefits, too; the regulation could save up to 20,000 work days that would otherwise be lost to sickness.

"We as a region suffer from some of the worst air quality in the U.S.," said Wayne Nastri, executive director of the air quality district. "It's incumbent on us to take all feasible and reasonable measures to deal with this."

Timothy Jemal, the CEO of NAIOP SoCal, the trade association that represents commercial real estate in Southern California, said there aren't enough zero-emission trucks to serve the warehouses in the region and argued that California already has the strictest emissions regulations in the country.

The proposed regulations govern warehouses, but "most warehouse operators do not operate their own truck fleets," Jemal said.

Expanding fight

Those pushing back against warehouses in the Inland Empire have the support of some of Amazon's corporate workers through Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, too. The group filed a resolution ahead of Amazon's annual shareholder meeting in May, calling on it to identify ways it can reduce "disproportionate environmental and health harms to communities of color" associated with its logistics operations.

"Amazon's current business model puts the lion's share of pollution in communities that have less power and less wealth to stop it," said Cunningham, the founding member of the Amazon employee climate group. "You don't see Amazon put these warehouses in richer, whiter neighborhoods and communities."

But Ana Gonzalez, who recorded the line of trucks idling outside an Amazon shipping center last week, doesn't expect local advocates' call for accountability to be answered easily.

"At this point the warehouses are already here," she said.

"Many people in our communities are tired of fighting. They're asking, 'If these measures don't pass, then what?' And I tell them that this is our community and we have to keep fighting. These developers don't represent us, and if our representatives don't hold them accountable, we have to elect them out of office."