“Growth isn’t free, it always has a cost,” according to start-up business author and entrepreneur Morgan Brown. Nowhere is that truer than with regard to the expansion of cities, where the cost can be significant and irrevocable. Oftentimes, that cost is the health and longevity of people.
In recent years, the staggering growth of e-commerce has given rise to new mega-corporations, such as Amazon, and upended the ways that traditional retailers do business. Our demand for quick shipping, either 3-day or overnight delivery, necessitates infrastructure available to accommodate that demand.
What the consumer rarely sees is the exponential growth in the warehousing and logistics industries, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color, accelerating health and environmental disparities in these already overburdened communities.
California is an environmentally progressive state and a global leader on environmental issues. When the federal government failed to craft legislation to decrease carbon emissions, California created our own “cap and trade” system, which has reduced state-wide emissions ahead of its targets. However, California is still struggling to achieve sustainable and equitable economic development.
For example, Southern California’s Inland Empire has become home to over a billion square feet of warehouses that require over 600,000 daily diesel truck trips to carry goods from them to consumers. This has led to severe consequences for both the climate and the largely low-income Latinx populations who live in the surrounding areas. The diesel trucks that bring goods to and from these warehouses produce a staggering 50 million pounds of carbon dioxide, increasing the region’s unhealthy air days from 15% to 20% per year. The warehousing industry is making its way across California, and the next wave seems to be in San Joaquin County.
Just like the Inland Empire, San Joaquin County makes an ideal location for a boom in warehousing and distribution centers due to its proximity to multiple forms of transportation, including the Port of Stockton, major freeways, rail systems, local airports, and lots of cheap land.
The San Joaquin Council of Governments’ (SJCOG) website says the county saw 74.3% growth in the industry sector, composed of transportation, warehousing and utilities, from 2013 to 2018. In 2019, the county became the second-highest concentrated transportation and warehousing metropolitan area in the U.S., according to a 2019 report by Center for Business and Policy Research at the University of the Pacific.
However, along with the growth came the cost. The San Joaquin Valley already has some of the worst air quality in the country, failing to meet federal health standards for both smog and particulate matter pollution. Warehousing industry growth has escalated the problem. One in six valley children suffer from asthma due to poor air quality.
Despite these severe health consequences, the Stockton City Council recently approved an enormous project known as the Mariposa Industrial Park, a 3.6 million square foot complex of four buildings that each will stand 100 feet tall. Again, the project was in an underserved community where the majority of the residents are non-white. This is an area where asthma rates are significantly higher, and life expectancies are significantly lower than in other parts of the city.
After opposition from local environmental justice community-based organizations like Catholic Charities, the developer did reach an agreement with the California Department of Justice and the Sierra Club to incorporate renewable energy measures and setbacks and to establish a $200,000 fund to further reduce exposure to emissions and noise from transportation. However, local community members were left out of this process and were not given a fair chance to object. The communication efforts and outreach were very minimal before the city council’s approval, and what little communication existed was not in their native language, only in English.
Community members have raised serious doubts as to whether $200,000 can address all the additional health consequences they will endure as a result of this project. In an interview with resident Alicia Valenzuela, the concerns were very apparent.
“The money will not go far. I considered it almost greenwashing blood money. The only reason why that was even at play was the pushback that activists conducted. … After the overhead costs are considered, residents will barely afford any one-time improvements for their health such as indoor air filters. The potential chronic health impacts will not be tracked and the private wells will not be tested. This literally feels like we (and I mean everyone who settled for the money) sold out the community.”
Local municipalities, developers, and construction unions use jobs and economic growth as a lucrative strategy to get these warehouse projects approved but fail to state or minimize the pitfalls of warehouse construction. The union construction jobs are temporary, available only until the warehouse is constructed. The warehouse labor jobs are typically not union protected nor is there a guarantee that the hiring pool will be local and at livable wages. For example, Stockton Planning Commissioner Mountain during the March 10, 2022, Planning Commission hearing raised the question about negotiating a local-hire procurement deal, for which the Mariposa developer stated “that they would not commit to one.”
Another concern is that artificial intelligence and automation will also cut the number of employees typically needed to operate the warehouse. High-cube warehouses, usually over 100 feet tall and floor to ceiling storage racks, are becoming more common because automation necessitates buildings of that size. Traditional manual labor is being replaced by technology, especially artificial intelligence (AI) and there aren’t any requirements for localized training in this new technology. “Why couldn’t there be a scholarship or a career pathway program integrated into this to ensure our people are trained on the new economy of Automation?” asked JP, an environmental justice organizer through their testimony. Wouldn’t it make sense to prepare Stockton residents for new technology? Former Mayor Michael Tubbs thought so in his 2019 Stockton Workforce Development Action Plan. Without proper automation training, these warehouse jobs will no longer be sustainable because many of the operations could be automated by 2030. What are we saying to residents when even the city leaders are not setting them up for success?
Local environmental justice organizations and community groups want their cities to bloom and flourish. We want jobs but not at the expense of lives, and that is why we would like to urge local planners and lawmakers to create sustainable growth. Planners should work with developers that have sustainable green building plans to reduce urban heat islands and trap CO2 emissions that come from transportation. In addition, we demand that cities follow the attorney general’s best warehousing practices guidelines to establish the most comprehensive mitigation possible. To name a few:
- developers can “[create] a community advisory board made up of local residents to review and provide feedback on project proposals in early planning stages.”
- “Preparing a quantitative air quality study in accordance with local air district guidelines.”
- “Posting signs at every truck exit driveway providing directional information to the
The warehouses can be constructed on land that is not near a community. New roads can be developed that route trucks around established neighborhoods and not through them. Permeable asphalt should be used to trap water, instead of having a runoff. We request that there are fair communication efforts, especially for non-English speaking residents, as required by previous civil rights complaints filed against developers and the California EPA. These are some of the few and very inexpensive mitigation measures that can be applied not just to a particular project or city, but to all projects and cities. We all want growth, but we want that growth to be green and sustainable, which is possible with some creative thinking and the right planning along with empathy toward people.
Tanisha Raj is an Environmental Justice Program Specialist at Catholic Charities, Diocese of Stockton where she works on environmental justice issues in San Joaquin County, particularly focused on underserved and historically redlined communities. She holds a MS in Water and Environmental Law from University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law and plans to pursue PhD in Climate Change or Sustainability.
Alison Hope Alkon is a sociology professor at University of the Pacific, where she writes, thinks and teaches classes about environmental justice, food and housing. She holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Davis and is the author or editor of four books, including Cultivating Food Justice and Black, White and Green: Farmers Markets, Race and the Green Economy. The author’s opinions are their own and do not reflect the views of Stocktonia News Service.