As soon as Esther Cuevas steps outside her home in La Vina, she can feel her chest tighten. The 60-year-old begins to experience a barrage of asthma symptoms, including shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing. In the past three years alone, she’s been hospitalized four times for pneumonia, she said.
She attributes her illnesses to the area’s poor air quality, which is caused by field dust, pesticides and smog-forming contaminants emitted by vehicles on the highway, she said.
“I didn’t have asthma when I first moved here 24 years ago,” she said in Spanish. “Now, it’s so bad that I can hardly breathe at times.”
Recently, Cuevas has grown increasingly more concerned about a new potential source of pollution – a proposed distribution center spanning 59 football fields that would be located about 10 miles away from her home.
Called the Project Riverwood Fulfillment Center, the warehouse would be located northeast of Highway 99 and south of Avenue 7 on a 122-acre undeveloped tract of land in Madera County, near the border with Fresno County. It remains unclear which company would be operating the facility. In February, the real estate company Seefried Industrial Properties submitted new plans for expansion, which increased the square footage of the site to 3.4 million feet.
Seefried Industrial Properties and the Madera County Planning Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The proposed warehouse, located within three miles of at least three schools, is in a rural area where the vast majority of nearby communities have low incomes and are predominantly Latino. Cuevas and other residents who live near the proposed distribution center say it would bring lots of diesel trucks, which would spew fumes and pollution into an area that is already burdened by hazardous air and other challenges, including poor infrastructure, lack of public transit and limited access to health care services.
“We already have so many problems here in La Vina,” said Cuevas. “We just want people to care about us because right now, we don’t get any support from anyone to help us.”
Some say the construction of warehouses in the Central Valley and statewide could bring jobs and a big economic boost to communities that often face high unemployment. But the rapid expansion of warehouses and the associated truck traffic has concerned environmental advocates, who argue that these industrial facilities will only further degrade quality of life and health outcomes for some of the state’s most vulnerable communities.
Residents in the Central Valley, one of the most polluted air basins in the country, are even more susceptible. Cuevas is among the hundreds of thousands of residents in the Valley who are already exposed to higher concentrations of air pollution and face an increased risk of developing serious long-term health effects. It’s a problem some say will only grow worse as the warehouse boom threatens to exacerbate existing high rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
“You’re just substantially adding to the pollution burden in that area and consequently you’re going to have health effects,” said Kevin Hamilton, the CEO of the Fresno-based Central California Asthma Collaborative, a nonprofit focused on mitigating the burdens of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. “It’s scary. It’s very scary.”
Madera County residents say more pollution would harm their health
The small unincorporated community of La Vina, located about six miles southwest of Madera, is tucked within almond orchards and grape vineyards, among other crops. The rural community is home to a little more than 200 residents, 96.2% of whom live below the poverty line. The median household income in the 95% Latino community is about $31,900.
Cuevas, who is from Michoacán, Mexico, moved to the Valley two decades ago with her husband, Manuel Lopez, to work in the fields. She is now wheelchair-bound and makes some money by providing childcare during the week for a neighbor’s daughter. She is undocumented and doesn’t receive federal aid or assistance, which makes it difficult for her to make ends meet every month. Her daughter helps her pay some bills, including water and electricity.
She said the community already faces significant challenges due to its small size and unincorporated status. Many residents in the community are aging and Latino, Cuevas said, but lack supportive services or access to a nearby medical clinic or health care provider. There is also a lack of public transportation, which is critical for many elderly residents who cannot drive or don’t have access to a car, she said. In addition, the small community suffers from poor infrastructure, including a lack of sidewalks and street lights, she added.
“Sometimes you feel helpless,” she said. “We’ve been fighting for these things for a long time and nothing has changed.”
Lopez, 70, worked as a farmworker and in other labor-intensive industries for four decades before he developed several health conditions that prevented him from working, including diabetes, chronic cholesterol, high blood pressure and asthma, he said.
The couple contracted COVID-19 in December and while they made a quick recovery, he wasn’t sure they would’ve survived without the vaccine, he said.
Lopez, who uses a walker to get around, said he’s concerned that new sources of pollution in the area could lead to higher rates of lung cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
“It gives me a lot of reason to worry,” he said in Spanish. “I am scared, how could I not be?”
Hamilton, of the Central California Asthma Collaborative, said Cuevas and Lopez have reason to be worried.
The distribution center’s operations would require the daily use of on-site equipment such as forklifts and yard tractors, as well as high volumes of truck traffic that could create toxic diesel emissions and smog-forming contaminants.
Breathing in toxic air particles from diesel exhaust can increase an individual’s chance of getting life-long asthma or developing cancer or another chronic illnesses. Some groups, including children, pregnant women and seniors, are especially vulnerable and can face even more serious health effects, Hamilton said.
“Any kind of diesel pollution, whether it’s from a stationary engine or a truck, those are some of the most dangerous particles there are,” Hamilton said. “Not only do they get in the lungs, but they get in the bloodstream.”
While air pollution is a widespread issue across the Valley, it takes a particularly heavy toll in poverty-stricken areas, he added. That’s because residents living in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to live in substandard housing with poor insulation or air-filtering devices and work in professions that require them to be outside all the time, like in the fields. But they’re also less likely to have access to health care or resources to pay for medicine and medical services, he said.
“These are huge, huge issues that we face here,” he said. “All those factors accumulate together to create a perfect storm.”
Proposed e-commerce warehouse could bring jobs to Fresno region
The initial plan for the project, which was released this past October, included 325 trailer stalls, 1,800 parking stalls, stormwater collection, fire suppression, an onsite wastewater treatment plant and infrastructure improvements, according to planning documents.
Those plans estimated the development would also create approximately 1,874 new jobs. While it remains unclear if the expansion of the project will increase the number of jobs, some proponents say the new scope could further boost the economy.
“Generally, when (a project) increases in size, it will have some impact on job creation, as well,” Bobby Kahn, executive director of the Madera County Economic Development Commission, told The Bee in a March 11 interview.
“The central San Joaquin Valley is one of the poorest regions in the nation,” Kahn said. “There is still a large need for employment. These larger companies pay a living wage, they pay benefits and will allow people to improve their standard of living.”
But dependence on these facilities for job growth also poses a risk for workers, said Ellen Reese, a professor of sociology and chair of labor studies at the University of California, Riverside.
“The large and growing concentration of warehouses is leading to unsustainable economic development in our state and putting people at greater health risk,” she said. “When you get larger concentrations of warehouses, it increases the risks of problems of public health. You also see high rates of injuries at the workplace and the warehouse industry is one of the more dangerous industries in our country.”
Many of these jobs, especially at fulfillment centers, require intensive physical labor and have a high injury rate, according to a June 2021 report from the Strategic Organizing Center.
Workers are more susceptible to various kinds of injuries, including “sprains, hearing loss, repetitive motion injuries to the back, arms, shoulder pain,” Reese said. Many of these workers are low-wage, and could become chronically disabled after working, which increases their risk of falling into poverty, she added.
“Many warehouses are often entering into communities that have had higher rates of unemployment, and it’s often seen by policymakers as a way of expanding access to jobs,” she said. “But we need to ask, what are the quality of those jobs and what other impacts is it having on the community?”
Additionally, some residents say that the new jobs will do little to curb the existing problems facing their communities.
Berta Garcia, 62, has lived in La Vina for nearly 30 years. Garcia and her husband have both been diagnosed with asthma, she said, and now she’s increasingly grown more worried about her 3-year-old grandson.
“Right now he’s not doing so well and his allergies have also been so bad which makes it hard for him to breathe,” she said in Spanish. “We don’t know what to do.”
She said she does not support the proposed warehouse, adding that job growth will not address air pollution concerns, which will only make all of their existing health problems worse.
“We have all of these other problems that we’ve been trying to raise awareness on for years and this (project) is not good for our community,” she said. “If the air is already contaminated and this project is approved, then what happens to us? The air will only get worse.”
Planning for the project remains in the initial phases. County officials are in the midst of preparing a revised environmental impact report. County officials have stressed that the public will have many opportunities to voice their concerns as the project’s plans progress. The county will consider the project’s potential effects on nearby communities as a part of the environmental impact report analysis.
This story was originally published April 5, 2022 5:00 AM.