When Amazon Expands, These Communities Pay the Price
Amazon opens most of its warehouses in neighborhoods with a disproportionately high number of people of color and low-income residents, a CR investigation found
Last year, with little warning, a new Amazon delivery station brought the rumble of semitrailer trucks and delivery vans to Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood.
The warehouse is located within 1,500 feet of five schools, in a residential area where more than half the people living within a mile have low incomes, and almost 90 percent are Hispanic.
The neighborhood is one of hundreds across the U.S. where Amazon’s dramatic recent expansion has introduced huge commercial operations. Residents near the new warehouses say they face increased air pollution from trucks and vans, more dangerous streets for kids walking or biking, and other quality-of-life issues, such as clogged traffic and near-constant noise.
Like Gage Park, the majority of these neighborhoods nationwide are home to a greater share of residents of color and people with low incomes than the typical neighborhood in the same urban area, according to a Consumer Reports investigation.
José Mendez, who has lived in Gage Park for 18 years, says his 5 a.m. commute now involves battling semis for space on a nearby residential street. His wife has called Amazon to complain, but the trucks still come past.
Uriel Estrada, a college student who lives with his family a few blocks from the warehouse, says having Amazon in the neighborhood isn’t all bad: Packages arrive much faster than before. Still, he says, the noise and traffic are distracting, especially in the afternoon. “In my house, you can feel it shake because there’s a bunch of trucks passing by,” he says.
To examine Amazon’s nationwide delivery network, CR combined commercially available information about the company’s warehouses with data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Environmental Protection Agency. (Read more about how we did the analysis [PDF].) In partnership with the Guardian, CR also went to neighborhoods near Amazon warehouses in Chicago and the Los Angeles area. Here are key findings from the investigation.
- Amazon opens most of its warehouses in neighborhoods with a disproportionately high number of people of color. Nationally, 69 percent of Amazon warehouses have a greater share of people of color living within a mile radius than the median, or typical, neighborhood in their metro areas. Some of these are communities where other industrial facilities already cause residents to worry about poor air quality, and excessive noise and traffic.
- The neighborhoods tend to be poorer, too. Fifty-seven percent of Amazon warehouses are in neighborhoods with a greater share of low-income residents than typical for the metro area they’re in.
- It’s just the opposite for Whole Foods and other Amazon retail stores. These tend to be located in a city’s wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, away from the communities where Amazon runs its warehouses.
- Warehouse operators are not generally accountable for air pollution from the trucks and vans they attract, and existing air quality monitoring networks are too spread out to pick up local emissions that can affect neighbors’ health.
- Community activists are asking local, state, and federal officials to step in to regulate pollution from warehouse-related traffic, and to consider an area’s existing environmental hazards before allowing new warehouses to open there.
Amazon operates many warehouses in areas zoned for industrial use, where land is cheap. A legacy of discriminatory policies at all levels of government means that many of the people living nearby are Black or Hispanic, researchers and local activists say.
CR’s investigation shows that the neighborhoods where Amazon opens warehouses often have a greater proportion of people of color than 70 percent or more of the surrounding metro area’s neighborhoods. And local activists often object to companies opening new facilities in communities where people are already burdened with environmental and health problems linked to decades of heavy commercial and industrial development.
“When Amazon opens new warehouses in communities of color, the company may just be expanding where it makes the most business sense: inexpensive land zoned for industrial use,” says Quinta Warren, associate director for sustainability policy at CR. “But when making business decisions like these, Amazon is taking advantage of a national legacy of racist policies that have kept cities across the country segregated for generations, and have resulted in disproportionate health and environmental impacts to communities of color.”
Breathing in tiny particles from diesel and gasoline exhaust increases a person’s chance of getting asthma, developing cancer, or having a heart attack, decades of studies have shown. Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable. This type of pollution also may cause premature births and miscarriages.
“Our communities are being sacrificed in the name of economic development,” says José Acosta-Córdova of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization in Chicago, one of several groups that have called for the city to pause approvals of new warehouses until there’s a plan to distribute them more evenly.
Amazon's Breakneck Expansion
COVID-19 has been good for Amazon’s business. Its worldwide sales topped $100 billion in each of the past four fiscal quarters, repeatedly crossing a threshold that few companies ever reach.
Meanwhile, the company embarked on a massive expansion, according to a database of Amazon facilities CR purchased from MWPVL International, a firm that helps companies plan warehousing and distribution networks.
Between 2015 and 2019, Amazon opened about 75 new warehouses a year, on average, ranging from the enormous warehouses Amazon calls “fulfillment centers” to the much smaller “delivery stations” that allow it to get packages to customers within days or even hours.
But in 2020, Amazon opened nearly 300 new facilities—almost as many as in the previous four years combined. The rapid expansion continued in 2021, though final numbers aren’t available.
The growth is bringing Amazon warehouses to dozens of new cities, from Lubbock, Texas, to Sioux Falls, S.D., and from San Bruno, Calif., to Ocala, Fla.
For neighbors of Amazon’s warehouses, the company’s presence can spark complex reactions. They are faced with traffic and pollution from trucks and vans, but they may also benefit from an influx of new jobs, tax revenues from Amazon, or investments the company makes in local economies.
Amazon declined requests for interviews and did not provide detailed responses to CR’s questions. But in an emailed statement, spokesperson Maria Boschetti said, “Amazon is committed to using its scale for good and being not only a good employer, but a good community partner in the towns and cities in which we operate as well.”
Amazon, of course, isn’t the only company with warehouses that create traffic and air pollution. Some of its largest facilities are clumped together with warehouses that belong to other huge retailers, including Costco, Target, and Walmart, or shipping giants like FedEx and UPS.
But Amazon’s COVID-era expansion eclipses its competitors’, says MWPVL president Marc Wulfraat. Last year alone, the company opened more than two-thirds as much warehouse space as Walmart operates in total. And Amazon’s delivery facilities are butting up against dense residential neighborhoods, feeding its unrelenting push to cut down on the wait between the moment a customer submits an order and the second it arrives at their door. In its 2020 boom, Amazon opened more than 115 warehouses within a mile of where at least 5,000 people live, according to CR’s analysis. That’s how warehouses can end up near playgrounds and schools.
The company has also been opening retail locations at a fast clip, including bookstores and its Whole Foods grocery stores. Its retail stores are much more likely than its delivery facilities to be in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods, CR found. On average, just 37 percent of the people who live near Amazon retail facilities are people of color, compared with over half of those who live near its warehouses.
“Communities that host delivery facilities end up being the losers,” says Sacoby Wilson, director of the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health at the University of Maryland in College Park, who worked with CR to analyze the locations of Amazon facilities. “They get more traffic, air pollution, traffic jams, and pedestrian safety problems, but they don’t receive their fair share of the benefits that accrue from having the retail nearby. You can treat this pattern as a form of environmental racism.”
The huge warehouses coming to many communities tend to worsen existing problems, from noise to local air pollution, researchers say. “People can get their Amazon packages and never have to think about the Black and brown communities who bear the brunt of having the warehouse in their backyard,” says Ana Baptista, associate director of the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School in New York City.
'All the Trucks Started Showing Up'
About six years ago, Brian Kolde and his wife found their dream home in Fontana, a city in California’s Inland Empire, the sprawling metro area of about 4.6 million just east of Los Angeles. It’s a stucco two-story surrounded by palm trees, in a friendly neighborhood with a park nearby.
“We were happy,” he says. “Then Amazon came in. And all the trucks started showing up.”
The 680,000-square-foot Amazon warehouse went up around the corner two years ago. Now, Kolde’s 11-year-old son keeps the TV on all night to drown out the constant growl of engines on the street. Kolde and his wife leave a portable air conditioner running in their room for the same reason. “For a while, we’d all be four peas in a pod, all in one bed together, because the kids would get scared of the noise,” he says. “Now they’re getting more used to it.”
A traffic study from the project’s developer estimated that the warehouse Amazon now operates and a much smaller warehouse next door would together generate almost 6,000 vehicle trips per day, including more than 2,300 diesel truck trips.
Not long after the warehouse opened, Kolde started noticing cracks in his house. The jagged gashes in the stucco likely came from around-the-clock vibrations from passing big rigs, he says city inspectors told him. And the money Kolde has thrown at the problem hasn’t helped. “It’s been hundreds of dollars in the trash,” he says. Once he patches up one crack, another appears.
The Inland Empire is chock-full of warehouses, and not just Amazon’s. The area’s proximity to the country’s two busiest seaports, in Los Angeles and Long Beach, has helped cement its status as America’s logistics capital. Of the hundreds of warehouses in the area, Amazon operates about three dozen, according to MWPVL data—including a pair of “air hubs” nestled into nearby airports, which send Amazon-branded planes across the country.
Like the Fontana subdivision where the Koldes live, most of Amazon’s delivery facilities in the Inland Empire are in neighborhoods with a higher share of residents of color than typical for the area, CR found.
The Inland Empire’s high concentration of warehouses is one reason it has some of the country’s worst air quality in EPA statistics.
Kolde’s 7-year-old daughter gets nosebleeds at least twice a week, and his son sneezes constantly. Kolde says he has started getting nosebleeds himself.
Kolde purchased air purifiers for the house, and he seldom opens the windows. “It’s a great home, a good community—but for how long?” Kolde says. “It all comes down to the health of my kids. If they’re getting sick, why live here?”
It’s clear that truck and van traffic contribute to a variety of health problems—but just how much a specific warehouse adds to those hazards is usually uncertain, for two main reasons.
First, no one publicly tracks emissions near warehouses—not the EPA, not local governments, and not Amazon itself. Environmental regulators monitor air quality around the country, but their sensors are too spread out to detect local hot spots. The enormous Chicago area, for example, has just 33 EPA-approved sensors for detecting small particulate matter emitted by vehicles—enough to tell if the city is experiencing a decline in air quality but not to pinpoint why, or whether people in Gage Park are breathing dangerous levels of tailpipe exhaust.
“The government systems we have right now are not doing enough to capture the exposure burden of communities,” says Wilson, the University of Maryland professor. “You don’t have enough monitors getting real-time data.”
The second reason is that warehouse operators generally don’t need emissions permits that account for the truck, van, and car traffic they create. Warehouses are considered “indirect sources” of emissions, which are not regulated by the EPA or most state and local jurisdictions.
“Warehouses fall into this really gray category of environmental regulation because they’re not traditional industrial facilities with a smokestack,” says Baptista of The New School.
In the absence of good local air quality data, traffic statistics can provide a sense of what it’s like to live near a warehouse. More than two-thirds of Amazon warehouses nationwide are in areas that score higher on an EPA traffic proximity scale than most other neighborhoods in the surrounding urban areas, CR found. The traffic proximity score, which is based on 2017 data, estimates the average number of vehicles that pass within 500 meters of a spot every day, giving more weight to the closest traffic.
Amazon has opened hundreds of warehouses in the years since these data were gathered, likely leading to increased vehicle trips in areas that were already burdened with heavy traffic.
Research shows that traffic exposure is a major health hazard—particularly in urban areas with congestion. Cars and especially trucks emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. A 2010 review of hundreds of studies from the Health Effects Institute found that proximity to traffic worsens asthma in children. It may also impair lung function, bring about other respiratory symptoms, and cause heart disease and death.
These dangers are especially acute in the Inland Empire and Los Angeles. People living within half a mile of large warehouses in those areas have higher rates of asthma and heart attacks than residents in the region overall, the local air quality regulator recently concluded.
Soon, a new rule from that agency—California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District—will bring better accounting of warehouse-related pollution. Experts say it could be a model for governments that want to get serious about curbing emissions from warehouse traffic.
The rule will require companies that operate warehouses 100,000 square feet and larger in the Los Angeles area and the Inland Empire to submit counts of trucks that enter and exit their facilities. That would include most Amazon warehouses in the region. The companies will also be required to choose from a menu of options to reduce their impacts on air quality and community health.
The companies can do things like electrifying their vehicle fleets, installing solar panels, and providing air filters for nearby homes and schools. Or they can choose to pay a fee instead, to go toward incentivizing truck electrification. Enforcement starts in 2022 for the area’s very largest facilities, and will phase in more warehouses in the following years.
Environmental groups are already pushing the federal government to implement similar rules nationwide. In October, a coalition of advocacy groups called the Moving Forward Network sent a letter to the EPA (PDF) asking it to require logistics companies to deploy zero-emissions fleets, and to regulate warehouses that attract polluting trucks and vans.
In the meantime, some organizations are trying to fill the gaps in air quality data. Researchers at the University of California, Riverside, and local nonprofits in the Inland Empire are together measuring residents’ exposure to particulate matter with air quality monitors that can be clipped onto clothing. And in Chicago, research and advocacy organizations installed more than 100 monitors to measure local air quality, with a focus on areas with a history of environmental burdens. Both projects are still in the data-gathering stage.
Amazon’s Pledge—and Internal Dissent
Amazon, for its part, has pledged to deploy 100,000 zero-emissions vans by 2030; some of the vehicles are already in operation. Amazon said in its 2020 sustainability report that it delivered more than 20 million packages with electric vehicles in North America and Europe that year. (By comparison, Amazon shipped more than 4 billion parcels in the U.S. alone in 2020, according to an analysis from Pitney Bowes, a logistics company.)
Boschetti, the Amazon spokesperson, said in the emailed statement that the company is choosing where to deploy its electric vans in part by considering a warehouse’s “proximity to environmentally disadvantaged communities who would benefit from our electric delivery vehicles in their community.” She says some electric vans are already delivering packages in at least a dozen major cities across the country, including Los Angeles and Chicago.
For some environmental advocates and experts, electrifying vans is a promising start—but it’s not enough.
“This commitment does not address any of the impacts from heavy-duty trucks that drive through communities every day to deliver goods to Amazon warehouses,” says Mary Greene, senior policy counsel on CR’s sustainability policy team. “As one of the largest companies in the world, Amazon has the ability to reduce its negative impacts by committing to electrifying all of its heavy-duty freight vehicles as well as all of its delivery vans.”
Last year, Amazon ordered 10 battery-powered freight trucks from a Canadian manufacturer, but it hasn’t made a public commitment to electrify more of its heavy-duty fleet.
In a “climate pledge,” Amazon has also promised to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 across its enormous operation, which also includes energy-hungry data centers that support internet cloud storage.
The company says its priority is to eliminate sources of carbon emissions, but it will make up for the emissions that remain with carbon offsets, such as paying for forest restoration overseas. So even if Amazon achieves net-zero carbon emissions to reduce its contributions to climate change, warehouse neighbors might still breathe in fumes from passing trucks and vans.
In addition to pressure from environmental advocates, Amazon is feeling some heat from a small uprising within the company. Last year, a group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice joined with the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice to pitch a resolution to shareholders requiring Amazon to come up with a plan to wean itself off fossil fuels and reduce the pollution it brings into vulnerable communities.
Amazon encouraged shareholders to vote against the resolution, saying in a statement, “We are already responsibly managing the environmental impact of our operations on the communities in which we operate, including communities of color.”
The resolution failed the 2020 shareholder vote by a wide margin, but more than 600 Amazon tech workers later signed a letter in support of the group’s goals. This May, a resolution introduced by another organization called for Amazon to review its impact on racial equity; it was also voted down, but much more narrowly.
The Amazon employees group had analyzed a small subset of Amazon warehouses and found patterns similar to CR’s conclusions. It then asked Amazon to create plans to offset the harm its warehouses bring to surrounding communities, and to examine whether building on a proposed site would disproportionately harm communities of color. But the group says the company hasn’t done anything to meet the demands.
“Knowing my day-to-day work is being somewhat methodologically used to pollute communities that are not wealthy and not white, it’s upsetting—even if it’s not intentional,” says one member of the group, a software developer who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “Being a company the size it is, Amazon has a responsibility to not impact the health and environment in the communities where it operates.”
When Amazon moves in across the street, its neighbors are sometimes the last to know.
Local lawmakers often refer to its plans using code names—like Project Granite in DuPont, Wash., and Project Bluejay in Bondurant, Iowa—and developers in many cases won’t reveal their customer’s identity until the company moves in.
“No one knows it’s going to be Amazon until it’s open,” says Ivette Torres, a researcher at the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice who co-wrote a 2021 report on warehouses (PDF) in the Los Angeles area and the Inland Empire.
Boschetti, the Amazon spokesperson, said in the emailed statement that the company engages closely with communities where it operates. “Amazon partners with local stakeholders to weigh a variety of factors before buying, building, or leasing an Amazon facility in any community,” she said.
“Once the decision is made to open a new Amazon facility, we continue partnering closely with local policymakers, city officials, community groups, small business owners, and community members to help make communities better than we found them by investing in the things that help them thrive—good jobs with good salaries and benefits, affordable housing, conservation, improved traffic flow, and the like,” Boschetti added.
But at several Amazon sites in Chicago, residents told CR they didn’t know what was being built nearby until construction workers installed Amazon’s smile logo, just before trucks and vans started arriving.
In Newark, N.J., a coalition of community activists are organizing against what they describe as a “backroom deal” with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that will bring an Amazon Air delivery facility to Newark Liberty International Airport. And a New York City council member says he learned about an Amazon project in his district from Crain’s, a local business newspaper.
“They’re utilizing every ability to circumvent analysis,” says Carlos Menchaca, the council member whose district includes Red Hook, a gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn where an Amazon warehouse recently opened a block from a large public housing development, and two more are planned nearby.
More Jobs—and Pollution
Residents might not know that Amazon’s coming to town, but they often end up helping subsidize the company’s expansion. Amazon’s national warehouse boom has been fueled in part by more than $3 billion in tax incentives since 2000, according to a database maintained by Good Jobs First, a nonprofit research organization.
“This is not a good use of taxpayer money,” says Christine Wen, a researcher at the organization. “Even leaving aside the inequality dimension, there’s just no need to subsidize them. They can do just fine.”
For local officials, tax breaks may seem worthwhile if they are likely to bring jobs to economically depressed areas—and once the tax incentives have run their course in a decade or so, maybe even some much-needed revenue.
Cities that hold back from offering tax breaks can make that revenue much sooner. In one extreme case, Eastvale, a small city in California’s Inland Empire that didn’t offer Amazon any incentives, estimated recently that Amazon pays it between $24 million and $30 million in annual sales tax revenue—more than enough to cover the city’s annual operating budget.
“That’s going to help us build a city hall and a library and a police station and a third fire station,” says Bryan Jones, city manager of Eastvale, which incorporated just over a decade ago. “There are a lot of trucks, and so these revenues will also go to maintaining roadways.”
Plus, Jones said, Amazon has brought valuable work opportunities to the city. “They provide a lot of jobs for people. It may not be a job that everyone in the state of California wants to do, but it is a job for many people.”
The number of jobs Amazon brings depends on the size and type of warehouse it’s opening. Its large fulfillment centers can employ 1,000 or more full-time workers, Amazon says; smaller delivery centers in denser areas might bring 100 or 200 jobs, according to MWPVL estimates.
And during the holiday shopping rush, Amazon hires a large temporary workforce: This year, the company says it will hire 150,000 seasonal workers across the country, an increase of about 50,000 over last year’s holiday staffing surge.
Some longtime residents who live near Amazon warehouses told CR they are pleased with the prospect of nearby work.
One Amazon warehouse worker in Fontana says the company’s benefits outstrip its competitors’. The worker, who asked to remain anonymous, says working for Amazon means reliable air conditioning at work, in-house medical teams, and a 401(k) plan, which some other warehouse jobs don’t offer. Plus, she says, the company let her plan a schedule around her college classes.
But despite the benefits, she says she still has mixed feelings. At town halls, she has heard testimony from people whose children are affected by the air pollution. “I see how this is affecting the community.”
At Cajon High School in San Bernardino, an “Amazon Logistics & Business Management Pathway” program funded in part by the company offers courses on management and supply chain logistics. At nearby Pacific High School, a separate program not funded by Amazon prepares students to work on commercial diesel trucks. To Angel Orozco, a San Gorgonio High School student and organizer at the faith-based advocacy organization Inland Congregations United for Change, it can seem as if the Inland Empire was “surgically planned so it would benefit the warehouses.”
Torres, who grew up and lives in the Inland Empire’s Moreno Valley, sees the region’s recent history as a cautionary tale. “I wouldn’t want other communities that are becoming logistics hubs or last-mile delivery hubs to suffer what my community has gone through,” Torres says. “People who don’t live in an e-commerce-heavy community don’t understand that this is all there is. If you want to work in something else, you feel forced to leave.”
Recently, several Inland Empire communities have made moves to rethink their approaches to warehouse development. In Riverside, Colton, and Jurupa Valley, city councils passed moratoriums on new warehouses over concerns about their effects. A similar pause fell just short of passage in San Bernardino. And in July, California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a lawsuit (PDF) challenging the approval of a large non-Amazon warehouse project in Fontana, emphasizing the unequal burden it would place on the communities of color and low-income neighborhoods around it.
Opponents of new Amazon warehouses say that many of the new jobs they create end up harming workers. Investigations have found that Amazon warehouse workers are pushed to work at a speed that can cause accidents, repetitive motion injuries, and other damage to their bodies, with injury rates that are much higher than average in the warehousing industry. Delivery van drivers, too, are pressed to make many deliveries quickly, sometimes leading to traffic collisions and even deaths, according to reporting from ProPublica and others.
These problems contribute to an extremely high turnover among Amazon warehouse workers: A recent New York Times investigation estimated that about 3 percent of Amazon’s hourly workers leave the company each week.
“They come in with the pretense of creating jobs, but in reality we know that these jobs are exploitative of our communities,” says Alfredo Romo, executive director of Neighbors for Environmental Justice, an advocacy organization based on Chicago’s Southwest Side. “Our communities have historically been asked to sacrifice our health in the name of jobs.”
For Romo, the Amazon facility that opened near his house this year is the physical embodiment of a missed opportunity. The warehouse is in the McKinley Park neighborhood, just 3 miles from the delivery center in Gage Park.
He and other local activists had pushed for the abandoned building that previously stood where the warehouse was built to be turned into a community center, with a gym, a health clinic, and maybe even a startup incubator. Those types of amenities are going into a former industrial area next to Lincoln Park, an affluent neighborhood on the city’s whiter, wealthier North Side, which is being redeveloped with housing, offices, riverfront retail, and green space. But when the city considered the future of a similar area on the Southwest Side, about a mile from the McKinley Park warehouse, it recommended keeping it industrial.
Taking in the expansive warehouse from across the street this summer, Romo shook his head. “Those things are happening on the North Side, but why not down here where poor Black and brown people live? Can we get that kind of stuff too?”
Construction workers wearing fluorescent yellow were digging at the street corner, where a sign for the new Amazon building would soon go up. Romo greeted them in Spanish as he passed by.
“We could’ve done so many great things here—things that could’ve helped the community,” he said. “Instead, we get this warehouse that’s going to bring all this pollution, increased traffic, more damage to our roads, to our housing. It’s just not worth it. We could do better.”