The Color of Climate

Amazon Is Getting Called Out by Its Own Workers for ‘Environmental Racism’

Most of the company’s highly polluting fulfillment centers are in communities of color

Photo: Don Emmert/Getty Images

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from OneZero exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.

On Wednesday, a recording of two San Bernardino teens pleading for Amazon to address its environmental impact was played at the company’s annual shareholder meeting. Former Amazon employee Maren Costa transmitted the audio during her comments to shareholders.

Teens Amy and April, who only used their first names, said they both have asthma and asked the shareholders to reduce the amount of air pollution the company creates in their predominantly Latinx community. They said their mother has worked in an Amazon warehouse in the Inland Empire, the Southern California region where San Bernardino is located, since 2012.

“A lot of our friends have asthma. It is normal here. We can’t run without our inhalers,” April said.

Their message was part of a proposal presented by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ), a nationwide group of former and current Amazon workers pushing the company to adopt more environmentally just policies. The proposal called for an investigation into the environmental impact of Amazon operations in U.S. communities of color, reparation for harm caused in those communities by pollution from Amazon’s facilities, and mitigation of future potential environmental harms. It was one of 12 proposals that were up for a vote at the meeting. The day before the meeting, AECJ published a Medium post outlining how Amazon’s fulfillment centers cause air pollution in communities of color.

But the proposal was voted down by shareholders. The board of directors, which includes Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, recommended that they vote against it. In its recommendations to shareholders, which were published ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, the board said it “believes that our existing initiatives… demonstrate that we are already responsibly managing the environmental impact of our operations on the communities in which we operate, including communities of color, and recommends that shareholders vote against this proposal.”

One Amazon employee, who has worked for three years in one of the company’s Inland Empire fulfillment centers and was granted anonymity to protect their job, tells OneZero they weren’t “surprised” that the shareholders voted against the proposal. The employee says they have seen how powerful the company can be in lobbying local governments to support its growth in the region and that the company’s takeover of the Inland Empire in spite of resident protests is “intimidating.”

“This is not just happening in San Bernardino. This is happening in other communities that look like ours,” Andrea Vidaurre, a policy analyst for the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ), an environmental justice group based in the Inland Empire, tells OneZero. “You’re coming into these communities of color and polluting the environment.” The CCAEJ backed the shareholder proposal with AECJ. In the Medium post, the groups said that Amazon is “complicit in environmental racism.”

Children in San Bernardino and Riverside, the two counties that make up most of the Inland Empire, have a higher prevalence of asthma than the state average, according to California’s Department of Public Health. The counties, where Amazon is the biggest employer, have some of the worst air pollution in the United States, according to the American Lung Association’s (ALA) State of the Air Report. Both counties are predominantly Latinx.

Amazon’s logistics network of warehouses in the United States is used to receive and ship merchandise. Most of these facilities are fulfillment centers, where customer orders are received, processed, and filled. There are over 100 fulfillment centers in the United States, and Amazon has plans to build dozens more.

Diesel trucks transport most of the goods that flow through Amazon’s logistics network and create tons of air pollution in the process. In its Medium post, the AECJ said these trucks “spew climate-change-causing greenhouse gases and toxic particles” into the air of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities all over the United States. It’s well documented that people who are exposed to air pollution from diesel trucks have an increased risk of health conditions, like lung cancer, heart disease, and asthma. A 2019 study showed that Latinx and Black communities in the United States disproportionately suffer these types of consequences from air pollution.

The Medium post also compares census data from the American Community Survey with the locations of all of Amazon’s U.S. facilities, showing that the majority of the company’s facilities are located in communities with higher percentages of people of color. Many other Amazon warehouses are located in communities of color in metropolitan areas that have some of the worst air pollution in the country, according to the ALA. There are warehouses in Houston, Phoenix, and Fresno, cities that are at least 40% Latinx. They are also located in Dallas, which is 24% Black, and Stone Mountain, Georgia, which is 78% Black.

Vidaurre, from CCAEJ, says the shareholder proposal they backed aims to hold Amazon accountable for its environmental impact on communities of color. The company’s direct environmental impacts in most of these communities, however, aren’t well known. That’s why AECJ and CCAEJ are pushing Amazon to measure the pollution it’s creating in communities of color, address the damage it has caused, and adopt renewable sources of energy to mitigate future damage.

For now, Amazon’s environmental impact is best understood in Southern California because that’s where most of its U.S. facilities are located. The company has 15.1 million square feet of warehouse space in the region, 94% of which are in San Bernardino and Riverside, according to the nonprofit research group Economic Roundtable. There, Amazon diesel trucks traveled an estimated 7.8 million miles, and the consequences from diesel exhaust cost the region $107 million in negative health effects in 2018.

Amazon is planning to open a new logistics hub at the San Bernardino International Airport in 2021 that the Federal Aviation Administration estimates will generate one ton of toxic air pollution every day. It will be the company’s 15th logistics facility in the Inland Empire.

The Amazon employee who spoke to OneZero compares the tech giant to coal companies of the 20th century that “owned” whole towns because they were the largest employer in those regions. As a result, they could heavily pollute the air and not be held accountable for it.

“That’s what Amazon feels like today,” they said. “It’s like the 21st-century coal company.”

But the employee says they feel “empowered” by their involvement in those protests. They also say that even though Amazon creates jobs and makes investments in the community, the company should still be held accountable for the air pollution it causes.

“I don’t think they should be let off the hook,” the employee says. “The fact that Jeff Bezos has as much wealth as he does [suggests] Amazon can afford to improve our communities if they’re coming in here and they’re improving themselves at the expense of us.”

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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