The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice is leading a fight against a new warehouse that would be built 70 feet away from a residential community and less than a tenth of a mile from a high school in the small town of Bloomington in San Bernardino County. Below is an interview with Graciela Larios conducted during the climate justice week of action in September 2018, staged in response to a West Coast Climate Action Summit convened by then Governor Jerry Brown.
Jess Clarke: Please welcome Chela from the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice from the Inland Empire. Coming at you from San Francisco Sol2Sol convening in the face of Jerry Brown’s West Coast world summit of climate inaction. Chela, what’s your full name?
Chela Larios: My full name is Graciela Larios and Chela for short. All my friends and family call me Chela, and everybody I meet is becoming my friend, my family, so, please, call me Chela.
Jess: What kind of issues have brought you into working with your community group?
Chela: Just to put a little context of where the Inland Empire is, or what we like to call Inland Valley, we’re not LA. Let’s start there because every time we go out of state, they ask us, “Where is Riverside County? Where is San Bernardino County?” We’re actually what we like to call the dry port of California, meaning we’re not the wet port but whatever goes through the ports of LA and Long Beach have to come through inland to the IE, the Inland Valley, the Inland Empire. So what issues come in our way? Well, whatever cuts through the ports has to have a place to be stored. It has to have a place to get distributed.
So our issues in the Inland Valley are distribution centers, warehouses, and of course the rail lines that are bringing that cargo from the ports. We got three major rail yards in our area. We got diesel trucks going all over the place in front of elementary schools and community areas. We got natural gas storage plants across the street from an elementary school, and I call it a storage because over 60,000 gallons of natural gas are right across the street from an elementary school. It’s actually a refueling station for the public transit system in San Bernardino. I mean, we got bad land uses of lands that have been contaminated and homes being built on top of it. Transmission lines. We got truck stops that we’re fighting. Take your pick. A bunch of cumulative impacts. Plus, the freeways, which we’re not a stranger to.
Jess: So you have Interstate 10, Interstate 15, and the last part of Interstate 40, right, kind of bleeds off from Nevada, right?
Chela: 210. Yeah.
Jess: So you got three freeways, three rail lines, and one hell of a lot of pollution on your hands. What are the impacts on people’s health and their ability to live a decent life?
Chela: Just to give you a little visual on how it is, there was a study not so long ago. I believe in 2012, 2011, Loma Linda University did a health study on an elementary school right across the street from one of the major rail yards, and their conclusion was that over 47% of those students in that elementary school had asthma or asthma-like symptoms. 47%. These are our kids, our future, and they can’t even be kids because to run around isn’t healthy for them. And that’s just to show you a little visual in what the community is going through. We got three major cancer clusters in that area, the west side of San Bernardino. We got any type of illness that has to do with our lungs. It’s a lifestyle that people got used to because they thought it was normal, but it’s getting to the point where it’s too much of a coincidence that they all live in the same area and they’re all getting sick. And now they’re saying, “This is not normal. This cannot be our lifestyle,” and people are fighting back. Even though they’re sick, they’re getting out there in front of a microphone and telling their leaders what is going on with their families, with their community, and how they want that to change for the near future.
Jess: What kind of impact does that have on water quality? Is it also affecting the food supply? Is it getting into people’s bodies only through their lungs or is the soil and water also contaminated?
Chela: Good question. I mean, to top it off, we have a food desert. The communities that are highly impacted are the ones that are surrounded by the warehouses, the ones that are surrounded by the diesel trucks. They don’t have a Vons, an Albertsons, a Ralphs. I call them fancy-looking stores because we got liquor stores. We got…you know, they’re not bad, but they’re little mom and pop stores, and some of them are not even walking distance. So we got those struggles to face with, plus our income level does not reach the prices of your Albertsons, your Ralphs, even your Stater Bros. So, I mean, to top it off, we don’t have access to it. Plus, we can’t afford it.
And what happens? We got businesses leaving our areas because they can’t be sustained with our income level, and yet we keep getting more warehouses with the false context that warehouses are going to rise the income level, warehouses are going to bring jobs, warehouses are going to give people more money in their pockets. That’s wrong, because we got them, and it’s not working. It’s not helping.
Jess: So what’s the average pay of a warehouse worker in your area?
Chela: Minimum wage, at the most. When they talk about wages that are beyond that, you’re looking at managerial wages. You’re looking at a small percentage of those people, and it’s not usually the people that live there locally. It’s usually either people that they brought from somewhere else or people that they already had in mind. When they say local jobs, that’s not the case. There’s nothing that tells them that they got to make sure that whatever they promise when they’re trying to propose this development, that it is exactly the number of jobs that they promised. There’s nothing that says that they have to complete that promise.
Jess: Do you have any union drives going on to unionize the warehouse workers over there?
Chela: The beauty of this environmental justice struggle that we’re all fighting is that we’re not alone. You know, we have to team up with our local unions. We have to team up with our local organizations, like the Warehouse Worker Resource Center. Shoutout to them in Ontario. We have to team up with them. We do deal with the environmental justice element. We have to know about what are the working conditions inside the warehouse? What are they fixing inside? Because that’s also part of the problem. It’s not just the people living next to the warehouses, it’s the people working in the warehouses as well. So we need to team up with people that know about those conditions.
Jess: I understand you have the third largest Amazon warehouse in the state of California, over 1.2 million square feet in just one warehouse. Do you know anything about the health conditions that are happening for the workers that are actually in the warehouse, what kind of conditions they’re under?
Chela: I wish my compañera, Vero, was with us. In fact, she just had to leave early this weekend, but she can give you that visual. We just had a county meeting where she went up on the microphone and said she’s faced people that were missing fingers. This is mistreatment of humans that we don’t talk about. In fact, we brush it under the rug. That’s just to show you just a little bit of what’s going on. The chemicals that are within the warehouse, people have to pay from their own paychecks to use gloves, to use even dust masks. And it’s coming out of their own paychecks. They don’t even get anything. That’s just to show you a little visual what’s going on inside, and I bet you there’s so much more that those politicians or those people pushing for warehouse jobs do not talk about when they’re proposing, when they’re saying, “This is the future. This is what we need.” They don’t mention these things, and they’re happening today. I welcome you to ask the Warehouse Worker Resource Center.
Jess: I understand that in Bloomington right now they’re trying to put up a warehouse and that the city is going to rezone it to encourage warehouses. They haven’t learned their lesson.
Chela: I’m glad you bring that up. Those are some of the problems. Bloomington is not a city. It’s actually an unincorporated area in the county of San Bernardino. I come from the area of Jurupa Valley, where we became an incorporated city seven years ago. In fact, nobody knows who we are yet because we’re still a baby, but the beauty of becoming a city is that you have your representatives, your city council fighting for your own city, fighting for revenue for your own city, and you’re not fighting against this massive county that does not give you the benefits within your little unincorporated area. So those are one of the problems that Bloomington is facing. They don’t reap the benefits from the big county of San Bernardino, and this is what’s happening to them. They are proposing a warehouse left and right. I mean, in your face, right across the street from an elementary school. You got the kids playing and those big building walls going up already in front of them.
Now, they’re proposing a warehouse less than 60 feet away from the residents that are already there. If you follow baseball, it’s like going to first base. How are they going to do it? They’re going to rezone. They want to rezone saying it’s a residential area, but we got to rezone in order to put something industrial next-door to it. That’s disrespectful. They say they represent the community members, and I’m talking about the county [board] members of San Bernardino, they don’t because the community members are speaking, and they do not want this, and they just don’t listen.
Jess: So what kind of leverage can you guys get over them? How are you going to move this county bureaucracy? How is the city of Jurupa Valley going to affect the balance of power in San Bernardino? What kind of stuff are you working on there?
Chela: Our power is people power. People are just showing up to these county meetings. In fact, on September 25th is our second chance to speak about no on the Slover Distribution Center, no on rezoning this area in Bloomington. I’m glad you mention the people of Jurupa Valley because the beauty of it is that we’re not just Bloomington, we’re not just Jurupa, we’re not just the west side of San Bernardino. We’re the Inland Valley. We’re the IE. And even though we have our own little cul-de-sacs, our little areas, it impacts all of us. These diesel trucks are going to go in our neighborhoods, regardless if you’re in Bloomington, Jurupa Valley. These warehouses are going everywhere, Fontana. So the beauty of it is getting the people together. The number of people is what goes against their dollar bills, and we don’t got money, but we got that people power. So we will show up. We will show up on September 25th, tell them what the people don’t want, tell the county board members, if you want to represent us, you listen to us, and, honestly, telling the media, telling the rest of the state, the rest of the area what we’re facing and getting our help from our legislative officials. We’re happy to say that our senator, Connie Leyva, our legislator, Eloise Reyes, she’s behind us. Those two ladies are behind us, and hopefully they will be present on September 25th.
Jess: So how does statewide regulation of diesel emissions, particulate matter, California Air Resources Board, and the legislature affect your community? How do you guys intend to effect the regulations that they’re doing? If you had zero emissions diesel trucks, what would that do for the area?
Chela: I’m glad you mentioned it. Zero emissions is the only way to go. Not near-zero, none of this natural gas way of living, no. Zero emissions is the only way to go, and I honestly wish that our state agencies, our state air districts have more of a harder hand on this because they can. They can be leaders, but they’re not. I feel like they could do more. As far as community members, we look up to them. We ask them to regulate. We ask them to make the polluters pay, to actually make them follow the law, and it’s hard sometimes. It’s harder to keep putting our trust in them when we feel like sometimes they don’t really come out and speak up for the community. They got the studies, Jess. They got the studies. They know the numbers. They got their monitoring systems all over the place, but we see no action. We see no solution, so we hope that we do move into that solution, zero emissions, electrification. That’s the only way to go. None of this near-zero. None of this we’re almost there but not completely. We need zero right now.
Jess: So how many of these warehouses have solar panels on their roof?
Chela: Good question. Not many. Not many at all. That’s a great question because we were just discussing here in San Francisco, we’re California. We got sun. We’re the Inland Valley. If you think it’s hot in San Francisco or in LA, come to the Inland Valley. We scoff at how hot it is here. We thought it was wintertime here in San Francisco right now. We’re like, really? This is winter for us. We’re over 100 degrees right now. In fact, we checked the weather. It’s over 100 degrees in our area. We can get so much from solar panels. We have that richness of the sun in our area, yet we’re not taking advantage of that. Not a lot, Jess. Honestly, I can’t even count.
Jess: What do you think the building codes would require that if a building is over 500,000 square feet, it has to have solar power on the roof and has to have plug-in stations for the vehicles that deliver to the warehouse?
Chela: It sucks that sometimes we got to remind them that this is what our future has to go to, but we see developers come up with proposals that don’t even take into consideration of putting in electrical plug-ins. They don’t even think about that. Maybe we might get electrical trucks one day. In fact, there’s a truck stop right now getting proposed in the city of Jurupa Valley where electrical plug-ins were something new to them. They never thought about it. And we’re looking at a truck stop, putting more trucks in an area that already receives over 800 trucks in one hour right adjacent to 101 homes, Mira Loma Village in Jurupa Valley. 800 trucks in one hour, and I’m talking about diesel trucks, not people trucks. So the fact that these companies, the fact that these developers are not thinking that we’re thinking about the future, we’re thinking about electrification, the fact that we have to remind them, that is sad. They’re not thinking about our future. They’re thinking about right now, their dollar bills, and not about the health of the community at all.
Jess: I understand that PG&E and Southern California Edison got $2 billion from the state to install electric charging stations. Do you see any of those in the Inland Valley?
Chela: Not yet, and I hope to, but then we also got to think about who has electric cars? Who has electric trucks? We got to think about how do we get those to community members? How do we get those to to communities that are impacted, communities of color, communities that do not have money. How do we get them those vehicles? It’s great to have those plug-in stations, but, again, if you don’t have that car, if you don’t have access to it, if you don’t have these warehouses or developers thinking about electrifying their fleets, then what is the point of getting these charging stations?
Jess: The South Coast Air Quality Management District ruled that warehouses are indirect sources of pollution. What kind of leverage does that give you to get these warehouses to clean up their neighborhoods?
Chela: The indirect source rule. We consider that as a victory. We just got it where they’re identifying that there should be rules and regulations for indirect sources, meaning warehouses are not the ones that pollute, it’s the trucks going inside the warehouses. We get it. The air quality management district, they regulate over stationary resources, which are the warehouses. But they cannot avoid the fact that trucks are going in and out, and to acknowledge indirect source rules, we must. We’re hoping that things like having a restricted truck route by a community where trucks are not allowed to be there…we’re hoping that rules actually enforcing trucks becoming electrified before they enter their warehousing areas or their yards, we hope that that happens because that’s what we’re hoping for. Again, Jess, this is a victory because an indirect source rule is something that we’ve been fighting for for years, and the fact that they’re acknowledging that there is a problem, that there is an indirect source, this is huge. We’re hoping for the best, and now we’re in the nitty gritty stuff. We’re in the nitty gritty of having them put harsh rules, like real, concrete regulations that will actually make solutions for our community.
Jess: That’s great. What are some of the other visions that you have going forward. What are your plans for 2019 or what other big campaigns are you taking on in the next year?
Chela: 2019. The work never ends. We hate to be like—what’s that called?—warehouse chasers where we always have to be making sure we go to each city council meeting. We always have to be reading all these, you know, EIRs. We hate that. We don’t want that. We want a big, massive solution where we can actually get something concrete, something written where we don’t have to do that, where there is something hard, like an indirect source rule. We don’t have to be doing that. The community is tired, Jess. The community is tired. They keep fighting fight after fight. Their health is diminishing, and they don’t got time because they got to work. They got to work to put food on the table. They don’t have time to be fighting, fighting all these causes. Our goal is to actually implement something concrete that could be used throughout the state of California, not just the IE.
Jess: Have you guys ever stopped the truck traffic on one of the interstates?
Chela: I think we’re increasing the truck traffic.
Jess: No, I mean like they have up here. They have blockades. They shut down the freeways.
Chela: We don’t, but we collaborate with orgs that do. It’s very powerful because it shows that…It starves the business. It stops the way that we want our goods to get faster to our shelves, and it just shows that we got that power to do that, and that’s just a little bit we can do. We could do so much more because we got that people power, Jess.
Jess: All right. Thanks for joining us here on Reimagine Radio at Sol2Sol convening here in beautiful, cold, wintery San Francisco where the temperature is 67 degrees right now on 9/11, 2018. Thanks very much.
Chela: Thank you, Jess.
Jess: Mucho gusto.
Chela: Mucho gusto.
Special thanks to the California Environmental Justice Alliance and Kay Cuajunco for setting up this interview.