Family Matters

Jun 7, 2019 by

Grist / Amelia Bates

The town that online shopping built — and women are trying to save

 on May 29, 2019

Anna Sanchez felt a surge of pride as she watched her 9-year-old son, Nathan, pull on the boxy, gray and white costume. The outfit had been made by a fellow demonstrator rallying against the stifling air pollution in San Bernardino County, California, where Sanchez and her son live. None of the protesters could comfortably fit inside the cardboard sheath made to look like a warehouse. So Nathan stepped up.

“Let’s do this,” he said happily, his head bobbing about a foot below the 20 or so adults surrounding him. They were gathered in front of the house of a San Bernardino County supervisor. The official had recently voted to rezone a residential area in a largely rural part of the community to allow for the construction of a new distribution center.

Nathan raised a bullhorn to his mouth and began to chant: “Kids’ health before wealth!” Sanchez smiled. It was the first time Nathan had joined her at an environmental protest.

“Right now he doesn’t really understand how he was directly impacted by it,” Sanchez said of the Southern California county’s air quality — the worst in the nation for ozone pollution, according to the American Lung Association’s most recent State of the Air report. “But he does understand that it’s an issue, and he understands that kids are being hurt.”

rally Anna and Nathan Sanchez warehouse costume
Nathan Sanchez (foreground) cheers on his fellow protesters as they rally outside the home of San Bernardino County Supervisor Josie Gonzales last October. Photo courtesy of Anna Sanchez

Only an hour-or-so drive from Southern California’s beaches but a world away from the glamour of Hollywood, San Bernardino County is one of the country’s biggest hubs for warehousing and distribution of goods. For many SoCal city-folk, the area encompassing San Bernardino and neighboring Riverside counties, known as the Inland Empire, has long been thought of as an “alien place,” at best a pit stop at the edge of the desert on the long drive to Las Vegas. Joan Didion, the great chronicler of California, once called the region “a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains.” But for those who make their homes here, the I.E. has been a haven to escape the bigger cities and skyrocketing housing prices closer to the coast.

There’s a long history of families seeking refuge in San Bernardino County. “Okies” fled to the area during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, traveling by way of Route 66. In recent decades, black homeowners have left more crowded and expensive Los Angeles County for the I.E. People have also flocked there from Latin America and Asia — 1 in 5 area residents is an immigrant.

But the abundance of cheap land has been an even bigger lure to the logistics industry — the businesses associated with the storage and movement of goods for retail and e-commerce. Every year, tens of billions of dollars of imported goods enter the United States and pass through the Inland Empire, either by train, truck, or plane. Becoming a crucial hub of international trade has been an economic boon to the area, but there have been consequences, mostly from pollution associated with the movement of goods.

“There’s no question that truck traffic and air quality is an issue,” said John Husing, an economist and local icon who works with the Inland Empire Economic Partnership, a group of local governments and industry bigwigs. But the region’s poverty, he contends, is the bigger hazard to its residents. “How do you weigh the various ways of looking at public health?” he asked.

The Inland Empire’s economic appeal stems from its geography — but so do its air quality issues. Fewer than 100 miles west, the San Pedro Bay Port Complex, which is made up of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, is the busiest in the United States and the ninth busiest in the world. Last year, it broke a record for the highest volume of shipping containers ever moved by a seaport in the entire Western Hemisphere. A significant portion of those goods doesn’t stay on the California coast long before being loaded up and sent east to be sorted and shipped from a growing network of warehouses within the Inland Empire.

“Why is this all in the Inland Empire? The answer is, there’s nowhere else to put it,” Husing said. If you run a major online retailer, he continued, “You have to be here.”

An aerial view of San Bernardino International Airport
An aerial view of San Bernardino International Airport which has attracted some major businesses, like Kohl’s, Pepboys Auto, Mattel and Stater Bros. to establish warehouses. Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

East of the Inland Empire are the San Bernardino Mountains. To the north are the San Gabriels. The region sits in a valley between the two forming a bowl that traps air heavy with car emissions drifting inland on the coastal breeze from nearby Los Angeles.

San Bernardino County not only has the country’s worst ozone pollution — better known as smog — it consistently ranks among the worst counties for year-round particulate pollution, or soot. (That’s even considering that it’s the largest county in the U.S. and includes postcard-worthy places such as Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead, the Mojave National Preserve, and parts of Joshua Tree.) Its toxic brew is made worse by rapidly proliferating warehouses, as well as one of the busiest railyards in the country — which is located on the West Side of the city of San Bernardino, where airborne particles from diesel emissions are at some of the highest levels in the U.S. The distribution centers and the rail hub draw thousands of trucks each day. San Bernardino County has accumulated nearly 300 million square feet of warehouse space — enough to fill more than 5,100 football fields. Kohl’s, Mattel, Skechers, and Pepsi are among the brands that have set up shop. Amazon’s fulfillment and sorting center — the first of its kind in the state — is now the region’s largest employer. Walmart has plans to build a 340,000-square-foot consolidation center there later this year.

Husing pins this explosion of activity over the past two decades on Americans’ insatiable appetite for stuff. “What’s driving this is the public,” he told Grist. “We want relatively inexpensive goods, therefore, we want the Walmarts. And then we also want e-commerce in a hurry.”

There’s no arguing that the warehouses have brought jobs to an area that needed them badly. As the country came out of the Great Recession and business infrastructure expanded, the county’s unemployment rate has steadily dropped, falling from a high of 14.2 percent in 2010 to a recent 4.3 percent.

The logistics industry is now an integral part of the San Bernardino County community. But the economic activity associated with our national shopping habit comes at a cost for families, like Sanchez’s, who live here.

Even before the warehouses started popping up, environmental activists in the Inland Empire, mostly women and mothers, were pushing back against industry for the health of their kids and their neighbors — taking on waste dumps, the railyards, and the county public transit authority. Today, they say that the balance between economic gain and public health is even more out of whack. Some community members have argued that many of the new logistics jobs lack good benefits and don’t pay enough to support a family. Much of the work is seasonal or vulnerable to being replaced by automation. Further, the encroachment of warehouses on residential areas could be putting workers and their families at risk.

San Bernardino County residents suffer from a range of maladies, including higher than state average rates of infant mortality, low-birth-weight babies, and various forms of cancer. As more of them become sick and a growing number of studies link worsening air quality and the health conditions seen in the region, women like Sanchez are organizing to stop the encroachment of the logistics industry on the places their families live, work, and play.

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