A scene from the HBO miniseries Chernobyl keeps me awake some nights. It takes place just a couple of hours after the explosion of Number Four RBMK’s nuclear reactor core. A group of family and friends gather on a bridge to watch the burning power plant on the horizon as if it’s a Fourth of July firework show. “It is beautiful,” a woman remarks. People close their eyes in a seeming act of reverence as the falling dust coats their faces like snowflakes, oblivious to its radioactivity. Children dance in a sandbox to celebrate the impromptu neighborhood gathering and unexpected faux snowfall.
Forty years later, viewers watch this fictionalized re-creation with a suffocating sense of heartache and helplessness — a retrospective knowledge of the cancer deaths that were to come.
There’s an added layer of injustice when the threat is invisible.
I felt a similar eeriness a few months ago walking through Esplanade Park, in California’s Riverside County. I’m an environmental consultant focusing largely on on developments in Southern California, and I was visiting the area to observe some projects we’ve worked on. It was a February afternoon — 82 degrees and sunny — and my colleagues and I sat at a lunch table in the middle of the park. We found ourselves surrounded by an ordinary playground scene: a father and son playing catch, two girls competing to see who could swing the highest, a man riding a bike with his daughter sitting on the handlebars. A monotonous suburban neighborhood enveloped the park, reinstating an air of comfort and safety.
And yet, only 1,500 feet from Esplanade’s edge — 125 feet from the nearest backyard — is the corner of these sprawling acres of highly polluting warehouses.
I felt a familiar melancholy trying to rationalize the industry infringing on the innocent: a threat, though not radioactive, that you couldn’t see or smell. The warehouses were hidden behind the homes, and the invading air toxics were, of course, invisible.
“Do these people even know?” I asked my colleagues on our drive away from Esplanade.
“I think some might know and care, but feel like they have no other choice,” one said.
An Empire of Diesel
In recent decades the Inland Empire — comprised of San Bernardino and Riverside counties — has been the primary victim of America’s warehouse boom. As demand for online shopping has surged — e-commerce sales grew 50% to $870 billion during the pandemic alone — this region has served as a billionaire’s dumping ground. Those are the words of Tom Dolan, executive director of Inland Congregations United for Change. “Now it’s no longer just Warren Buffet, it’s Jeff Bezos and Amazon,” Dolan told The Guardian in 2021. “And we’re paying the cost of doing their business.”
That business is only made possible by taking out a nonconsensual loan from the residents of surrounding communities. It’s a coercive trade: the health and safety of citizens for the profits they’ll never share. And no worthwhile efforts have been made to pay off that debt.
In order to fulfill the glamorous promises of expedited, overnight and same-day deliveries, diesel trucks conduct over 600,000 daily trips through the Inland Empire alone, carrying roughly 40% of the nation’s goods. These vehicles emit 1,000 pounds of diesel particulate matter every day (alongside 100,000 pounds of nitric oxide and 50,000,000 pounds of carbon dioxide).
The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified diesel particulate matter as a Group 1 carcinogen — the most severe category — due to sufficient evidence linking diesel exposure to lung cancer. (Other studies have suggested a relationship to cancers of the bladder, larynx, esophagus, stomach, pancreas and blood, alongside asthma, other respiratory disease, heart attacks and premature mortality.) The region bordering the warehouse hub in one Inland Empire city, Ontario, ranks in the 95th percentile of cancer. A 2015 study estimated that 70% of the total cancer risk from air pollution in California is caused by diesel exhaust alone.
An Undue Burden
The people who suffer the consequences of our online shopping are not typically over-consumers themselves. The South Coast Air Quality Management District found that the 2.4 million people living within half a mile of a warehouse are also disproportionately Black and Latino communities below the poverty line. In 2012 San Bernardino ranked as the second poorest city in America with over 34.6% of people living in poverty. And of all the residents living within a mile of the average Amazon warehouse, 80% are people of color.
In January a coalition of over 60 environmental groups (including the Center for Biological Diversity, publisher of The Revelator) wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom and asked him to declare a public health state of emergency in the Inland Empire. The request included testimony from residents on their firsthand experiences dealing with the everyday reality of increased asthma attacks, nose bleeds, hospitalizations, and coronary episodes. Given “nowhere else to turn,” they’re demanding government intervention, alongside a moratorium on new warehouse construction until the health consequences can be better understood.
— Jeff Horseman (@JeffHorseman) January 31, 2023
It is now May, and they have not yet heard back.
“It’s been very scary fighting all of this,” an advocate from Colton said in a Pitzer College student documentary about the Inland Empire. “It feels like no one is listening.”
Natives of Southern California drive by acres of warehouses without blinking an eye. The buildings are mundane, unassuming, even inviting: Walmart’s fulfillment center is decorated with banners of sunshine logos and sky-blue font that reads, “Hi There. We’re Hiring,” with the familiar warmth of a neighbor knocking on your door.
Even for residents who are well aware of the health consequences associated with these warehouses, it can be hard to ignore the knock. Along with introducing air toxins and environmental degradation, the warehouse boom has brought a blanket of economic security. As of 2021 the logistics industry was responsible for 1 in 8 Inland workers’ employment, adding more jobs here than any other part of the state. The region has also traditionally served as a refuge from ultra-high Los Angeles rent. The low cost of living and the influx of jobs have served as a siren call to new residents — who now find themselves victim to invisible poison, much like the workers who lived in the communities around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
And so the warehouses build on — and with remarkable speed. Warehouses are currently increasing at five times the rate of population growth. In 1980 the Inland Empire was home to just 237 warehouses. Today there are more than 4,000.
Before our site visit, we planned our stops by researching neighborhoods located closest to large warehouse clusters. We found Edenglen — a residential community with a similar sensation of a Disney movie set — located just 1,400 feet from what our online maps told us was a 13-warehouse lot. However, upon arrival, it became clear that even satellite images can’t keep up with the stark reality. We stood in the barren, grassy lot separating Edenglen from the industrial site and counted not just the 13 warehouses but five new ones under construction — this time, just 200 feet from the nearest backyard.
We watched a worker coat the gray building with a slightly-less-gray layer of paint. The sun was cruel, and the freshly painted walls were blinding.
My boss suggested we stop for a beer on the ride home.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or their employees.