Weaponizing Maps In The Social Justice Struggle To Limit Warehouse Emissions
University of Redlands student Diego Mora intuitively knew that warehouses had become a pervasive, polluting presence in his hometown of Fontana.
Huge warehouses have been put up across San Bernardino and Riverside Counties in the past few decades, bringing with them diesel trucks and extensive air pollution to a region already struggling with dirty air.
During that time he’d watched his young brother suffer from asthma. But it wasn’t until Mora took part in a project to map the warehouses did he realize the toll the logistics industry was taking on people in communities like his.
“It was very eye opening and it could confirm a lot of things I knew, but it also allowed me to see things in new perspective that I didn't necessarily think about before,” Mora said.
Mora was part of a group of University of Redlands students who collaborated with social justice activists on a project to use previously unavailable warehouse location data to create a series of maps.
The maps, published in this article from the environmental group EarthJustice, juxtapose warehouse locations with data about health, wealth, poverty, online shopping, race and ethnicity.
They powerfully illustrate that low income, Black and Latinx populations are disproportionately burdened by the logistics industry, especially in the Inland Empire and some freeway corridors of Los Angeles County.
The maps showed that warehouses are more likely to be located in neighborhoods with higher levels of poverty. The closer a warehouse was, the more likely the population was to be lower income.
Real World Challenge
The project began when University of Redlands Professor Daniel Klooster was looking for a real-world challenge for the students taking his environmental justice courses. Normally, his courses would include field trips, but that wasn’t possible with the pandemic restrictions of the past year. He sought a project that could punch through the sterile online teaching environment that became so pervasive during the pandemic.
“I wanted to find a way to create a link between the community and the classroom,” Klooster said.
And since his specialty is geography, he wanted the challenge to be a mapping project.
He asked some community activists from the Sierra Club and the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice to speak to his students about the sorts of data they could map.
“They said, ‘we think warehouses are targeting poor and minority communities.’” Klooser said. “Well, that's a question that you can take to the world, that you can marshal the inquisitive brains of undergraduate students and say, ‘is this true?’”
The class took up the challenge.
Student Rosario Cardenas was on board for the assignment right away. She grew up in a less polluted part of the Inland Empire, and once she got to college she realized that many of her classmates suffered a lot more pollution than she did, and she wanted to understand why.
"They shouldn't have to endure polluted air because they live next to warehouses, and I didn't think this would still be a problem in 2021, especially not in California," Cardenas said.
They decided they would map warehouses and see how they overlapped with social justice issues, like poverty, pollution, and health.
Where Are All The Warehouses?
But there was a problem. Nobody could say where, exactly, all those warehouses were — which you kind of need when you’re trying to make a map.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District didn’t even have the information in its own files. It was proprietary data gathered by a private company and would cost thousands of dollars to obtain.
So the environmental groups, through a California Public Records Act request, asked the AQMD to provide the data. And the agency purchased the data and handed it over.
Finally, with that data in hand, the students could map the location of every warehouse over 100,000 square feet in the air basin shared by Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Orange counties.
The data, current through the end of 2018, showed nearly 3,400 large warehouses in the air basin.
The number shocked Cardenas.
“I knew there was a lot, but to hear that there were 3,000 on the map was mind blowing,” she said.
It just shows why we have so much air pollution in this area, and we're not even blaming these diesel trucks or corporations for being the cause of it.
Proximity Of Schools
The environmental justice classes used the warehouse locations to show several other issues.
More than 600 schools were within a half-mile of a large warehouse. Schools are considered “sensitive receptors” meaning that pollution from trucks can harm kids more than the general population.
One of the maps, by student Vivian Pallares, showed that consumers who bought the most online during the pandemic, were least likely to live near the warehouses distributing the goods.
She wrote, “The neighborhoods in green are free riders of pollution in this case because they are able to enjoy the benefits and convenience of online shopping and shipping without having to be in close proximity to warehouses. Those who are closest to the warehouses suffer the consequences of having pollution from warehouses and transportation in their neighborhoods and this can have a negative impact on their health at a disproportionate rate from the other communities.”
The maps the students created are no mere academic exercise. They will have a real world purpose of making an abstract concept more understandable to community members and policymakers, Klooster said.
“When the environmental injustice of an industrial location isn't isn't known or visualized, then it can be ignored,” Klooster said. “And that means that we can we can continue to affect poor and minority communities in ways that, you know, we might not do if they were wealthier, more vocal, more politically aligned communities in other parts of the city of the region.”
The AQMD has been drafting new rules intended to limit air pollution from trucks and warehouses and a decisive vote is set for May 7. The students and activists hope the maps help persuade the governing board to adopt stricter rules for limiting emissions from trucks and warehouses.
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