Online Shopping Is Poisoning the Air, But Electric Vehicles Can Help


If you buy a product online, there’s a good chance it will pass through the Inland Empire. Nestled in a ring of mountains in Southern California, the region is a mecca for transporting goods through its freeways and many mega-warehouses. And these aren’t your mother’s warehouses: a car can drive for several minutes alongside one of them and still not reach its end.

The sprawl of cavernous buildings here is an intensified version of what’s happening all over the U.S. As e-commerce grows, propelled by the COVID pandemic, warehouse hubs are expanding to accommodate speedy online deliveries and an ever-growing distribution network.

The diesel trucks that service these warehouses impose dire health consequences to the communities around them as they belch dangerous levels of nitrogen oxides, benzene, and particulate matter. Breathing such heavily polluted air dramatically increases asthma rates and risk of pulmonary disease and cancer, leading some medical professionals to call neighborhoods with heavy freight activity “diesel death zones.”

Trucks line up outside the Amazon ONT 2 and 5 facilities in San Bernardino.

Trucks line up outside the Amazon ONT 2 and 5 facilities in San Bernardino.

Anthony Victoria-Midence / CCAEJ

Residents of the Inland Empire breathe some of the worst air pollution in the country. For years, local environmental justice groups have fought hard to protect their right to breathe clean air — and this spring, they won major victories that could give other communities a playbook for forcing warehouses to limit their emissions.

The predominantly Latino working-class communities of the Inland Empire have endured a long legacy of injustice, hemmed in by crisscrossing freeways that connect the two largest ports in the country. As many as 1,000 diesel trucks an hour thunder through Inland Empire communities within 100 feet of people’s homes. The coastal breeze provides little relief, as the region is encircled by the Box Spring Mountains, which trap pollution under a cap of warm air pressure.

In April, Earthjustice won a settlement valued at up to $47 million in a case representing local environmental justice and conservation groups who sought to electrify the world’s largest planned warehouse development in the region. The project, dubbed the World Logistics Center, will equal three Central Parks in size — 10% of the entire city’s land. Without electrification, the project would pump out hundreds of thousands of metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year and add more than 14,000 diesel truck trips each day.

The future site of the World Logistics Center circa 2011.

The future site of the World Logistics Center circa 2011. The warehouse pictured in the photo is 1.8 million square feet, while the World Logistics Center will have 40.6 million square feet of warehouse space.

Terry Pierson / MediaNews Group/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images

This landmark settlement is the first of its kind, and could reverberate through the industry. As the largest warehouse development to incorporate zero-emissions technology, it provides a roadmap for how the goods movement industry can dramatically reduce its health and climate impacts on nearby communities.

Under the settlement, the developer will help fund 680 electric trucks and equipment like electric forklifts, enough solar panels to meet 50% of the facilities’ needs, and other electrification solutions. The developer will also provide a thousand $1,000 EV grants for Moreno Valley residents to purchase electric cars, install on-site EV chargers, and set aside up to $5 million for air filtration and noise mitigation for the most impacted homes near the facility. An additional $4 million will go to protecting the local ecosystem and the nearby San Jacinto Wildlife Area, which is home to threatened and endangered plants and animals.

A box travels down a conveyor at Amazon's San Bernardino Fulfillment Center in 2013.

A box travels down a conveyor at Amazon’s San Bernardino Fulfillment Center in 2013.

Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

The settlement highlights how systemic change, not consumer choices, will reduce…

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