The proposed Eastgate Air Cargo Facility at San Bernardino Airport would make high levels of vehicular air pollution even worse. Already, San Bernardino county is one of the biggest hubs for goods warehousing and distribution in the US. Every year tens of billions of dollars’ worth of imported goods enter the country and pass through the area, by train, truck and plane. The area encompassing San Bernardino county and the neighbouring Riverside counties is known as the ‘Inland Empire’. There are high poverty levels. Many people have immigrated to the area, from Latin America and Asia. About 1 in 5 residents is a immigrant. High levels of pollution from logistics traffic is compounded by geography; the area sits in a valley between the San Bernardino mountains and the San Gabriel mountains, forming a bowl trapping air heavily laden with pollutants from vehicles. Emissions drift inland from Los Angeles and the area hosts one of the country’s busiest railyards and a proliferation of warehouses. San Bernardino has the worst ozone pollution in the country and is among the worst areas for year-round particulate pollution.
San Bernardino has higher than state average illness rates; a growing number of studies link poor air quality to health problems in the region. In comparison to white residents, Latinos are exposed to higher levels of particulate matter pollution, almost 40 per cent higher on average. There is a high level of birth defects and sudden infant death syndrome (SID) in the area, both of which are linked to poor air quality including high levels of particulate pollution.
Activists also say many of the new logistics jobs are of poor quality, lacking benefits and with wages so low that workers are unable to support a family. Employment in warehouses is often precarious and insecure. Positions are often temporary, seasonal and vulnerable to replacement by automation.
Environmental activists, especially women, are pushing back against the health risks from high pollution levels. Environmental groups are working with the South Coast Air Quality Management District to craft rules to make mobile sources of pollution, like diesel trucks, responsible for the emissions they bring to communities. The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) was formed in the late 1970s to protest against pollution from an industrial waste dump and over the years campaigned on a wide range of issues. Women in San Bernardino have led several grassroots campaigns against pollution from the logistics industry. Many of these women have cared for their babies and children suffering from air pollution related illnesses.
Opposition to air cargo facility
Airport officials and other proponents of the Eastgate Air Cargo Facility say the development would create nearly 4,000 jobs and generate millions of dollars in revenue. But many local residents and organizations are concerned about the health and environmental impacts on their neighbourhood. On 17th April 2019 hundreds of residents gathered at a local church to voice worries and grievances they said had been ignored. Environmental groups and labour unions said the project had been green-lit without addressing important quality of life concerns raised in the Environmental Impact Report. Labour unions have doubts over the quality of the new jobs and whether local residents will even be considered for them. The tenant of the facility has not been disclosed but is rumoured to be Amazon. The logistics and e-commerce giant has already built 14 giant fulfilment centers in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
Randy Korgan, secretary-treasurer for Teamsters Local 1932, and Inland Empire trade union, said: “These warehouses are being built without a tenant in it, or even knowing who the tenant is, and a third party or a fourth party comes in, occupies it and they employ temporary employees, high turnover and compressed wages.” Long-time resident of San Bernardino County Sally Sukdol said: “where are we gaining anything? Our streets are so torn up already and now they’re talking about bringing in more flights, which means more trucks and traffic.” Ericka Flores of CCAEJ said: “Development is necessary and we need the growth. But through warehouses is not the only way…We are at capacity (for warehouses) to begin with, and now we are going way beyond out threshold.” Environmental activists and community members suggested crafting a community benefits agreement to present to the developer, detailing the project’s contribution to the community and ensuring community support. Such agreements have been reached with other similar large projects in Southern California including the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
At the packed church hall meeting questions were asked about the pollution from the projected 1,568 diesel-fuelled truck trip per day at the new air cargo facility, along with the 26 daily cargo flights. The spectacular boom in warehouses and distribution centers has also come at an economic cost. Cities often grant millions of dollars in tax breaks and other incentives, plus choice locations, to major retailers in the absence of ironclad contracts to deliver jobs or other benefits to local communities. Assembly representative Jose Medina said: “The promised number of jobs often doesn’t materialize. And many of the jobs are temporary or seasonal. They come with poor benefits and are in danger of becoming automated.”
Tom Dolan, executive director of Inland Congregations United for Change, a coalition of 60 religious groups, said of the inundation of the area by warehouses: “Because of the Inland Empire’s poverty and history of political corruption, all of the developments have been done with little to no community engagement.” Dolan also said that approvals for the project to be built by Hillwood Enterprises, which has built and leased 23 warehouses in San Bernardino since 2002, for an unnamed tenant, “had been passed before anyone knew anything about it. Everything was secret.” Community groups said they had first learned of the development through a local news story in February 2019, a secrecy allegation that was disputed by the executive director of the Inland Valley Development Agency and San Bernardino International Airport. On the afternoon of the church hall meeting Anthony Victoria of CCAEJ knocked on doors in a local neighbourhood inviting residents to learn about the air cargo project. Few of them had heard of it. “It’s alarming” he said, “There’s just a continuing thing of leaving out public participation.”
The church gathering did not advocate scrapping the air cargo facility project but argued it should come with community benefit agreements guaranteeing well-paid, secure jobs along with measures to limit air pollution, including air filters and soundproofing for schools and homes.
Environmental activists have been joined by labour, faith-based and immigrant advocates, united by their concerns over rising pollution health risks, to create a new collation to protect communities surrounding San Bernardino Airport, where the new air cargo logistics center is slated to be built. The newly formed coalition held a demonstration on May Day 2019. Led by Ericka Flores, organizing director of CCAEJ, nearly 300 people including the home care workers’ union, Warehouse Worker Resource Center and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights marched past San Bernardino’s courthouses, county buildings and the city hall.
Hearing attended by hundreds
On 8th August 2019 hundreds of community members gave their comments at a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hearing on the air cargo project. The hearing was so well attended that the building reached capacity and overflow seating extended outside. Many attendees carried signs and wore T-shirts expressing their views. Andrea Vidaurre, policy analyst at CCAEJ, said: “The San Bernardino airport is located in the most ozone polluted part of the most ozone polluted basin in the nation! We do not even entirely understand how the current air quality is truly affecting our health. And we want to add a huge polluting development? We need a comprehensive, robust, deep dive look into what exactly this project is bringing us and what does that mean cumulatively in the context of where it’s located…We have very serious concerns that this project will have severe impacts. How will we know how strong of a mitigation package we need, if we do not truly understand the impacts? The city and community deserve to know what exactly they are approving. And they need a true commitment to lower and eliminate those impacts.” Community advocate Ben Reynoso said a community benefits agreement was still being pursued along with a true environmental impact report, saying: “Since there are high levels of ozone in our area, we want air filters for residents’ homes, schools, churches and anywhere else that there are large amounts of people”. All public comments research and studies will be included in the Draft Environmental Assessment. Once this is completed the FAA will determine whether or not to approve the project as proposed or request a full Environment Impact Report. Tom Dolan of Inland Congregations United for Change, Allen Hernandez of CCAEJ and Ricardo Cisneros of the Inland Empire Labor Council penned an article criticizing local leaders for failing to attach enforceable terms for deals with Hillwood, which had been granted exclusive rights to develop the air cargo facility on the former Norton Air Force Base site. Dolan, Hernandez and Cisneros wrote that ‘Norton was a huge asset to our communities. Instead of prioritizing working people and breathable air when it came to base reuse, leaders in our region gave it up for nothing’. The terms of the deal have been highly profitable for Hillwood without granting communities much in return. They repeated calls for a community benefits agreement with clearly defined and legally enforceable guarantees and benefits, pointing out that the majority of the speakers at the FAA hearing were in favour of such an agreement. Residents, community organizations, labour unions and churches are uniting under the banner “SB Airport Communities” to push for a community benefits agreement ensuring the development will bring good jobs during construction and operations and guaranteeing the best possible protection against negative air quality, noise and road traffic impacts. The San Bernardino Airport Communities website has extensive information about the air cargo project and the coalition of local organizations fighting for a community benefits agreement.
Global Climate Strike
Air pollution from the logistics industry took centre stage when hundreds of San Bernardino youth and adult residents turned out to participate in the Global Climate Strike on 20th September 2019. They marched from the Inland Regional Center to the Amazon Fulfillment Center. Many young people shared testimony on the state of the climate and high levels of pollution from trucks and planes. Residents fear that the new air cargo facility will make the air pollution in the area much worse. CCEAJ member Anthony Victoria said: “San Bernardino youth and residents are calling on Amazon and its developer Hillwood to agree to a Community Benefits Agreement that will prevent air pollution, guarantee safe family sustaining jobs and ensure the city’s infrastructure can handle the increased traffic flow…Pollution from trucks and planes exacerbates lung diseases, asthma, diabetes, and contributes to premature deaths, particularly for children, the elderly and those who work and play outside.” CCAEJ’s Andrea Vidaurre linked local airport pollution with the global issue of climate change: “These type of warehouse and air cargo expansions are bad for the climate. You’re taking about an area that is already highly saturated. The transportation emissions and fuel used for combustion increases our ozone problem…the operating vehicles are spreading green house gasses into the air.”
Many people at the San Bernardino Climate Strike spoke of witnessing friends and family members having breathing difficulties and suffering lung disease and other pollution related illnesses. Young people spoke about the prevalence and severity of the problems caused by excessive warehouse development and air pollution, with each new project posing another threat to residents’ well-being. The Warehouse Worker Resource Center drew attention to an eight-year study showing that children in the San Bernardino area have slower lung growth and the weakest lung capacity of all the children in the state who were studied. The Center also stressed the importance of their fight to put checks on the air cargo project through a community benefits agreement.
Support from a Senator
In October 2019 Senator Kamala Harris added her voice to the debate over the Eastgate Air Cargo Logistics Center, saying that the community’s concerns were serious and should be addressed. In a letter to the FAA she called for the FAA to conduct a full environmental study, to ensure that the concerns of residents already burdened by high pollution levels do not get overlooked in the approval process. Senator Harris’s letter echoed many of the concerns raised in recent months by residents of San Bernardino, Redlands and Highland. Harris wrote, “it is vital that the environmental, community and worker concerns surrounding this project be given serious consideration. A full (study) will give all stakeholders the ability to identify and address these serious concerns.” Andrea Vidaurre of CCAEJ welcomed Harris’s letter: “She says what we’ve been trying to say, which is, this is not just any other project. This is a giant air cargo facility that’s coming into one of the most impoverished and most polluted parts of San Bernardino, and we can’t continue to do that to some of these communities.” “A whole community has come together behind this issue,” said Randy Korgan of Teamsters Local 1932. “There’s a lot of good dialogue and positive energy about how to deal with these developments and how to deal with the future.”