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Southern California Warehouse Boom Poses Environmental Costs for the Inland Empire

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Warehouses and trucks
Warehouses and truck traffic in Fontana. Image from Google Maps

Drive east from downtown Los Angeles, and the scenery thins out. The land grows drier, the hills rougher. The desert encroaches. Beverly Hills and Hollywood are replaced by Pomona, Fontana, Rialto, Redlands. 

This is the Inland Empire, home to more than 4 million people and perched at the periphery of Los Angeles. Some dismiss it as the “land of cheap dirt.”

It’s not just any cheap dirt, though. It’s cheap dirt within a few hours’ drive of one of the world’s largest port complexes — Los Angeles and Long Beach together represent America’s chief point of importation from Asia — and well-positioned to feed the nation’s growing obsession with ordering goods online and expecting them to arrive instantly. 

The result: California’s Inland Empire has become home to a cascade of warehouses.

Today, warehouses occupy about 1 billion square feet of the Inland Empire. Another 170 million square feet has either been approved and is awaiting construction, or is pending approval from a local government. 

In 1980, the region was home to 234 warehouses; there are now more than 4,000. And individual warehouses are getting bigger, too. Nearly 40 square miles of the region’s land today sit beneath the roof of a warehouse.

With that growth have come jobs and benefits. The Inland Empire has been quick to rebound from COVID and is chugging along at employment levels that resemble a pre-pandemic economy.

But warehouses and the industries they support also carry consequences. Warehouses are not standalone buildings; they take in goods and move them out again — mostly with trucks, which burn fuel and clog up streets and highways. The 4,000 warehouses that line the region’s transportation corridors generate some 600,000 truck trips every day, producing a staggering 50 million pounds of carbon dioxide. 

The implications for climate change and personal health are daunting. In just one year, from 2019 to 2020, the number of unhealthy air days in San Bernardino County jumped from 15% of the calendar to 20% of all days. And, predictably, the negative effects of that pollution and related traffic congestion are overwhelmingly concentrated in neighborhoods inhabited mostly by Latinos and low-income residents.

Small cities such as Fontana show the effects of this hellbent absorption of warehouses. With a population of just over 200,000 people, Fontana houses distribution centers for Coca-Cola, Target, Smart & Final and FedEx, among others. Since 2010, Fontana has approved more than 70 new warehouses, which cover some 860 acres and produce more than 16,000 truck trips a day.

Those findings are part of a groundbreaking project spearheaded by a group of activists and analysts who have created a database and map to track the growth of warehouses in the region. One of them is Susan Phillips, a professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer College and director of the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability. 

“This is really, really scary,” she said in an interview, adding that some planners seem not to grasp the problem while others willfully ignore its implications. “They’ve made the choice not to care about the health impact.”

The growth in warehouses is in part a reflection of changes in the national and international economy. Indeed, most of the goods that pass through these warehouses are not bound for the Inland Empire at all. It’s merely a waystation for everything from pharmaceuticals to toys, arriving from Asia and making their way to points east of Fontana or San Bernardino.

The phenomenon also reveals holes in the region’s approach to planning. Warehouses typically are approved by local officials, often with little consideration for their impact on neighbors even though the cumulative effect of the new warehouses is regional rather than localized (pollution and traffic don’t stop at a city’s edge). But calls for regional planning test the Inland Empire’s politics and its structure, leading to confusing, uncoordinated policy decisions.

In response, Phillips and her colleagues produced a breakthrough, interactive map called Warehouse CITY. It cuts through confusing government jargon — some cities label warehouses as “warehouses” whereas others rely on euphemisms such as “light industrial property” — and puts together a searchable, overarching look at the growth in warehouses in recent years. This allows users to chart the development of these buildings across Southern California and visualize the footprint.

It also explains why this is so urgent for the people who are tracking this issue. They have gathered their findings in a report entitled “A Region in Crisis,” which they forwarded to Gov. Gavin Newsom this week, along with a letter urging him to intervene.

The coalition called on Newsom to declare a “state of emergency and public health crisis in the Inland Empire.” They also asked state leaders to adopt a moratorium on new warehouse construction until the health and environmental consequences of this explosive warehouse growth can be better understood.

That’s a tall order, one that will pit the interests of some of the nation’s largest manufacturers and distributors against local concerns. It will invite the typical decrying of NIMBYism, and it will hit residents where they live — in availability of jobs, the health of their air and the vitality of their communities.

The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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