an electric delivery vehicle
Credit: / Flickr / Creative Commons

Community and clean air advocates are fighting to curb pollution and electrify trucks in a distribution center hub.

The new expectation of next-day delivery is contributing to an old problem for California’s valley communities: smog.

Online and big-box retailers in recent years have erected giant distribution centers in Southern California’s Inland Empire, an area east of Los Angeles that includes Riverside, San Bernardino, Fontana and Moreno Valley. The area is sought after in part because of its proximity to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which service about 40 percent of all trade in the United States.

Amazon reportedly invested $4.7 billion in the Inland Empire between 2012 and 2016, and it’s not alone. Walmart, Target, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Ikea and Nike all have distribution centers in the region. Many are larger than 500,000 square feet, with soaring ceilings and numerous loading bays, all designed to gain economy of scale and improve operational efficiency. A surge in truck traffic and air pollution has accompanied the buildup.

“One of the issues we’re dealing with in our region is the immense air pollution from the thousands and thousands of diesel trucks” that are coming to the area, said Allen Hernandez, executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, one of the groups helping to push back against the logistics industry with lawsuits and demands for better pollution controls and cleaner vehicles.

More than a third — 37 percent — of California’s emissions stem from the transportation sector, according to the state’s air resources board. Cars and trucks are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions California, and — despite the state’s reputation among conservative critics as being run by radical environmentalists — many cities here are plagued by terrible air pollution, some of the worst in the U.S.

Lawsuits to press policy

Clean air advocates have used environmental lawsuits to press developers for project-level air quality mitigations such as bans on older diesel trucks and the building of electric vehicle infrastructure.

Moreno Valley residents are locked in a prolonged legal dispute with the World Logistics Center, a proposed massive new development totaling 40 million square feet of warehouses that the developer says will create 20,000 new jobs. The Moreno Valley City Council approved the project in 2015.

Community groups and environmental advocates, including the local Sierra Club chapter, filed environmental challenges claiming that, among other issues, the development will exceed daily air pollution standards set by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Environmental documents estimate that the center will generate more than 68,000 daily vehicle trips, one-fifth of which would be by heavy trucks.

In response, the developer said that it would mandate only new diesel trucks on site and not use diesel equipment in the warehouses. Additionally, each building will have a minimum of two electric vehicle charging stations, but the environmental groups argued the mitigations were not enough and won a recent legal victory. Settlement discussions are ongoing.  

Elsewhere, Hernandez’s group and Earthjustice, an environmental law group based in San Francisco, sued San Bernardino County supervisors and the developer of the Slover Distribution Center, a 334,000-square-foot warehouse located in the rural town of Bloomington.

They argued that the warehouse, which abuts a residential area and is next to a high school, didn’t adequately mitigate for air pollution. Among other measures, the developer agreed to install four electric vehicle charging stations, but Hernandez contends it is not enough and litigation continues.

The pollution is getting so bad in the Inland Empire that officials with the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Southern California voted last May to create new emissions rules for warehouses and distribution centers that could limit pollution from the trucks and trains servicing distribution centers — a so-called indirect source of pollution.

The goal is to tackle the issue of pollution in the air by how much it accumulates in an area, rather than on a pollutant-by-pollutant basis. The rulemaking process is controversial. Business leaders are resisting and worry that regulations will hurt the growing market for shipping goods and services.

Hernandez’s group is pressing leaders with the air quality agency to adopt a rule that will enforce new regulations either on the amount of pollution, the facility size, or a requirement on the number of trucks that come in and out. The details are under negotiation.

The community group’s argument is that the only sustainable solution is the electrification of trucks. Andrea Vidaurre, a policy analyst for the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, said: “We need an indirect source rule, and we also need caps, a facility-based measure that tells the warehouses this is as much as your facility is allowed to pollute and every year that will get smaller and smaller to incentivize electrification and the infrastructure to support electric vehicles.”

State budget concerns

In 2014, California passed SB 1275, a bill that mandated the state put a million electric vehicles on the road in the span of a decade. The so-called “Charge Ahead” legislation was endorsed by a coalition of environmental groups. State investment in electric semitrucks was a key component of the bill.

The bill’s language outlined the goal of increasing access to “disadvantaged, low-income, and moderate-income communities” to electric vehicles and to “increase the placement of those vehicles in those communities with those consumers in order to enhance the air quality.”

Environmental groups have applauded the state’s effort generally, but they have raised concerns about Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal, which slashes funding to these programs by millions of dollars.

The latest budget proposal would infuse the California Air Resources Board with $132 million for low-carbon trucks, buses, and off-road freight equipment, a reduction of $48 million. Money for transportation equity projects and fleet modernization programs is set to be $50 million, half of what it was in the last budget.

“We’ve done a lot in terms of generating investments around this topic,” said Joel Espino, environmental equity legal counsel for the Greenlining Institute. “But we can’t take our foot off the electric pedal, especially in the poorest and most polluted parts of our state. And unfortunately, the governor’s budget does just that. It cuts millions in funding to programs that will create the most benefit and in vulnerable communities.”

The institute is an Oakland-based racial and economic justice nonprofit and research organization that works across the state of California to push electric vehicle policy as an investment tool for social justice.

“When you look at smog … particularly from the heavy-duty sector, we know that it discriminates,” Espino said. “We know that low-income communities of color are hit hardest by toxic emissions because of a long history of discriminatory land use and transportation policies that really saddle those communities with clogged highways and dirty ports and warehouses.”

Leaders with California’s finance department said that the reduction in funds was not a policy decision but is due to fluctuations in money from California’s cap-and-trade auctions. They are reviewing the budget and it could be amended in the next draft, which is expected in May. 

Low-emission zones

California leaders are also exploring the development of bans on old diesel trucks in certain areas hardest hit by pollution.  

Nancy Skinner, a Democratic state senator from the Bay Area, proposed a law last week intended to phase out the use of diesel trucks in California. It directs the California Air Resources Board to come up with a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from trucks 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. Skinner tweeted:

Proud today to announce SB 44, also known as ‘Ditching Dirty Diesel.’ It’s designed to phase out the use of polluting, diesel-fueled medium- and heavy-duty trucks and buses in California and to speed up the transition to cleaner technologies.”

Older diesel vehicles are banned in some German cities, including Leipzig, where one study found widespread benefits. Soot particles, with cancer-causing hydrocarbons, decreased by 60 percent, and ultrafine particles, which can penetrate deep into the lungs, decreased by around 70 percent, according to researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research.

In 2017, the Air Resources Board outlined a set of policy recommendations designed to help the state reach its emissions reduction targets. At the time, the state’s goal was a 40 percent emissions reduction across the board by 2030. Last year, California leaders mandated that 100 percent of its energy be derived from clean sources by 2045.

One of its recommendations: the creation of pricing policies to support the robust development of low-emission heavy-duty trucks. The state could ban trucks that spew large amounts of diesel exhaust in some areas, or at least require that heavy polluters pay significant tolls. Analysts with the Air Resources Board are expected to release policy proposals for what are sometimes called low-emission or no-emission vehicle zones sometime in 2019.

Kevin has written for Midwest Energy News since May of 2017. His work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Chicago Reporter, Chicago Reader, and on NPR’s Latino USA, among other outlets.