Edgar Jaime didn’t realize that the largest Amazon warehouse in the world was being constructed across the street from his vegetable farm in Ontario, California, until the walls went up.
Then again, Jaime can’t say he was too surprised.
Over the past decade, once bucolic Ontario has become one of the biggest US hubs for the e-commerce industry. In addition to the 4.1m-square-foot Amazon facility under construction, three other Amazon facilities as well as a sprawl of warehouses for FedEx, Nike, and other companies stretch to the east of Jaime’s farm. Another 5.1m sq ft logistics center will soon be constructed down the road.
Mucky fields and cattle feedlots around Jaime’s home have been paved over to make way for clean, gray box buildings and herds of 18-wheeler delivery trucks. “You can hardly smell the cow manure in the air any more,” he said.
A 45-minute drive east of Los Angeles, Ontario now has the highest amount of warehouse space in the Inland Empire region, and one of the highest in the US. Within just a few years, the e-commerce and logistics industries have reshaped not only the town’s landscape, but also its air, its job market, its politics and its way of life.
The changes have come quickly, but also quietly. While neighboring communities have been publicly fighting warehouse projects abutting schools and boxing in homes, in Ontario, many residents said they hadn’t noticed just how many new warehouses had cropped up on fallowed fields and along old country roads – until they were surrounded.
“I’ve seen two warehouses go up along my drive to work just since September,” said Andrea Galván, who lives in an older residential neighborhood in northern Ontario. At the end of her street, a freeway expansion is under way to accommodate more delivery trucks thundering in and out of town. A series of cargo planes rumble overhead – some of them painted Amazon blue.
“It’s too much, too fast,” she said.
Tombstones on family legacies
For Galván, a 32-year-old who grew up in Ontario and now works in residential and retail real estate, the new, sleek greige warehouses can look like tombstones atop long-running family legacies. “I believe in development, I support construction. I’m not against tearing stuff down to build something better,” she said. But she misses the wide open public land, the sprawling citrus groves, and the family farms she grew up with.
Ontario had long been a dairy town – settled by Dutch, Portuguese and Basque farmers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the 1980s, the area was one of the highest-yield milk producing regions in the world. Starting mid-century, families began moving to the region from Los Angeles and the midwest – including many Black and Latino families like the Galváns. Here, they found affordable homes with access to open spaces.
“The money folks worked hard to make in LA went a lot farther there,” said Juan Galván, Andrea’s father.
But urbanization and the expansion of industry in the region soon pushed the dairies out. In the 1980s, 90s and the early aughts, farmers began selling their land and moving to the Central Valley – closer to milk and cheese processing plants, and to other farms willing to buy manure for fertilizer.
Then, the logistics industry took off.
Companies were drawn in by Ontario’s proximity to the LA and Long Beach ports – the two busiest in the country – and its network of major freeways. Especially amid the Great Recession, local leaders welcomed the industry and its promise of jobs.
Today, more than 600 warehouses are clumped into Ontario’s 50 square miles (129.5 sq km). A mapping tool developed by researchers at the Robert Redford Conservancy at Pitzer College and the consulting firm Radical Research LLC estimates that all together, warehouses take up 16% of the city’s land.
Nearly 100 of the warehouses opened in just the past three years, to feed the country’s ever-growing hunger for online shopping.
Many Ontario residents said what had really shaken them up was the realization that their city could soon be home to the largest Amazon warehouse in the world.
The five-story, 4,055,000 sq ft behemoth is about a fifth of the size of the sprawling Disneyland complex in California. According to the consulting firm MWPVL International, which tracks Amazon’s distribution network, the site is Amazon’s biggest known warehouse. Once it’s up and running in 2024, 1,500 employees will work alongside robotic systems, to send out an estimated 125m packages a year.
The construction had been in the works for years, though its ultimate scope and purpose would long remain unclear. The project was proposed in 2019 by Prologis, a real estate firm that frequently works with Amazon. The retail company’s name, however, wasn’t officially associated with the project. The initial plans suggested a “business park” featuring smaller buildings as well as “larger warehouse-style buildings”, according to planning documents presented by Prologis.
An environmental analysis submitted with the proposal noted that emissions of greenhouse gases, particle pollution and nitrogen oxides would increase as the result of the project, and this impact would be “significant and unavoidable”.
Still, Ontario’s city council unanimously approved the project in April 2021.
By early 2022, plans had emerged for an even bigger construction – the 5.3m sq ft South Ontario Logistics Center, which developers wanted to build right next to the Amazon center.
Conservationists pointed out that delivery trucks going in and out of the center would emit even more greenhouse gases – and run counter to the city’s goals to address the climate crisis. Environmental justice leaders noted that these trucks would further pollute the air.
But once again, the council passed the project 7-0.
‘It was bound to happen’
For many longtime residents, the huge new constructions are bookends to an era. “The land I grew up on is now covered in concrete,” said Craig Imbach, 58.
Imbach’s family sold off its dairy business in 1979. Two years ago, his old house was knocked down as well to make way for an industrial complex. All that remains are the sepia-toned photographs framed in his new home, and an heirloom collection of antique milk pails.
“I guess it was bound to happen,” Imbach said. He now works in construction – for a while he was building warehouses, though he’s since transitioned to working with heavy machinery and often contracts with natural gas businesses.
“It’s bittersweet,” his wife, Jerrina Imbach, 54, added. The warehousing industry generates much-needed employment and infrastructure, she said. “But we lose the family farm, we lose the dairies,” Craig finished.
Decades after his family farm was sold, Craig can’t bring himself to drink milk from a grocery store. “What can you do. There’s no stopping progress,” he said.
Then again, the town has been deeply divided over what that progress should look like.
At Flo’s Café, a classic old diner housed in a nondescript little hut across from the new developments, the walls are still decorated with odes to the region’s history. There are paintings of happy Holstein cows and a poster of vibrant Holland tulips – an homage to the Dutch dairymen who settled the area in the 1900s.
At lunchtime on a recent Wednesday, the men of an old dairy family – one who sold their plot of land to warehouse developers for more than $1m per acre – settled in next to a table of contractors working on one of the new logistics center constructions.
A few tables over, Randy Bekendam, a fourth-generation farmer, settled in with a group of local activists fighting new warehouse developments. Snide glances and polite smiles were exchanged before everyone tucked into their hot country sandwiches and tuna melts.
“This has been a longtime meeting place for farmers,” said Bekendam, a spry 70-year-old known locally as “Farmer Randy”. “Nowadays I guess it can get a bit tense in here.”
Bekendam and his daughter run Amy’s Farm – a 10-acre regenerative farm with a half-dozen beef cattle, dairy cows called Buttercup and Tatertot, pigs, horses, 100 or so chickens and a small herd of pygmy goats. Volunteers from the community come by to help harvest seasonal fruits and vegetables, school groups visit to learn about agriculture and toddlers come to pet the goats.
Amid the warehouse boom, Bekendam’s landlord started receiving offers to sell the land to developers, Bekendam said. The farmer has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to keep his farm – and has joined with a group of local leaders fighting the incursion of warehousing in Ontario.
“They keep building these monstrosities in the middle of farmland,” he said. “And once farmers are displaced that’s usually the end of their line.”
He and other activists want to see at least some of Ontario’s open land preserved for regenerative farming and community gardens – pockets of clean air and natural beauty.
“That’s something we really need,” he said.
Ontario has long struggled with horrendous air quality. Though longtime residents are now nostalgic for the astringent smell of manure, the bigger industrial dairies stank up some neighborhoods – and emitted methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that can interact with other pollutants to create suffocating levels of ground-level ozone. Smog from freight railways, factories and farms collected over the Inland valley, in a cup created by the surrounding mountains. Generations of families suffered with asthma and recurring bronchitis.
Environmental regulations helped clear out the heavy, gray smog that Bekendam and other longtime residents recalled from the 60s and 70s. But warehouses have once again deteriorated air quality, activists say.
Researchers from the Redford Conservancy and Radical Research estimate that the perpetual procession of trucks in Ontario make about 96,000 trips in and out of the warehouses each day, producing about 8m lb of carbon dioxide emissions, 15,200lb of nitrogen oxide pollution, and 131lb of diesel particulate matter daily.
About 10% of children under 10 in San Bernardino county have been diagnosed with asthma, according to public health data compiled by the University of California, Los Angeles. About 36% of kids in this group were taking daily medication for asthma. A 2021 report from the local air quality monitoring management office found that people living within half a mile of warehouses had higher rates of asthma and heart attacks than residents in the region overall.
A joint investigation by Consumer Reports and the Guardian last year found that the rapid expansion of warehousing in the Inland Empire and other communities across the US disproportionately affected poorer people and people of color.
Melissa May, a local organizer who began rallying residents to fight the South Ontario Logistics Center this year, said she stopped buying from Amazon and other online retailers once she understood the industry’s impact. “Now I tell all my friends in other parts of the country: don’t do it. Your online shopping is directly hurting my community,” she said.
May, who grew up in Ontario and lives a mile east of the new mega-constructions, moved back to the city in 2019 to take care of her sick father. She moved from Alexandria, Virginia, not far from where Amazon is building its second corporate headquarters, to where the company will open its biggest warehouse. And she said she and her whole family had seen their health deteriorate. “I just didn’t realize what we were moving back to,” she said.
May has asthma, chronic inflammatory lung disease and emphysema, and she says her conditions have become harder to manage since she moved back. Her 12-year-old son has asthma, too, she said, adding that like many kids in the area he gets frequent, gushing nosebleeds after playing outside. He had stopped getting those when they lived in Virginia, she said.
As she talks, she pops one breath mint after another – one of several precautions she takes to avoid asthma attacks, sinusitis and trips to the ER. She does breathing exercises and takes courses of Sudafed for her sinuses. “I take daily pills, I take steroids. I have two types of inhalers.”
Nowadays, as she navigates through Ontario’s wide, flat streets in her silver Honda CR-V, she likes to count each warehouse she passes. “There’s Target, Staples, UPS,” she said. “There’s one Amazon, and there’s another.”
‘We can’t beat the system’
In response to concerns about emissions and air pollution, Amazon has said it is planning to transition to electric transport and hydrogen-powered delivery trucks and vehicles, and that the company “is on a path to powering our operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025”.
“We work hard to be a good neighbor and appreciate the partnership we have with many communities across the country including Ontario,” said Barbara Agrait, an Amazon spokesperson.
Members of Ontario’s city council, including its mayor and mayor pro tem, did not respond to multiple queries from the Guardian.
In public meetings and statements, local leaders have pointed out that the logistics industry has brought in much-needed tax revenue. They have noted that when developers build new warehouses, often, they also make much-needed improvements to local infrastructure – repaving and widening roads to make way for trucks, revamping ageing plumbing and electrical systems.
City council members and local union representatives have also argued that the warehouses have created jobs, tens of thousands of them. Across the region, the warehousing and transportation industry employs some 214,000 people. Employment in the sector is up 39% since February 2020, following a boom in online shopping during the pandemic, according to an analysis by the Center for Economic Forecasting and Development at the University of California Riverside School of Business. The building boom has created jobs in construction and related industries, while Amazon has become the largest employer in the Inland Empire.
Meanwhile, jobs outside of the warehousing industry are scarce, several residents said.
Still, the work inside the warehouses can be grueling. Reporting by the Guardian found that warehouse workers were often injured at work. And local activists and residents have said that the warehouse and trucking jobs don’t pay enough for people to afford to live in Ontario, where the median price of a home is more than $500,000.
“I was able to make a living wage as a laborer, and have enough to buy a house and send my daughter to college,” said Juan Galván. “My kids don’t have those opportunities.” He said he still wonders why his daughter moved back to Ontario after studying and living in cities all over the world.
Activists have also pointed out that council members have accepted thousands of dollars in donations from warehouse developers and other interests. A tally by Ian Ragen, a student at Pitzer college, found that city council members received at least $160,000 in campaign contributions from warehouse developers and related interests in 2020. Alan Wapner, the mayor pro tem, received $52,000 in donations from warehousing interests such as commercial real estate firms and developers, and additional donations from a local farming family that owned much of the land under the South Ontario Logistics Center.
Members of the city council did not respond to specific queries about donations.
Residents are left with the impression that “they’re selling our community to these developers”, said May. “It seems like no matter how hard we work, we can’t beat the system.”
‘The warehouses are everywhere’
For some Ontario residents, it’s been too much. “I always envisioned my entire life in this area,” said Danielle Cobarrubias, 23, who grew up in Ontario and neighboring Chino, and now lives in a new development that sits between an Amazon sorting center to the south – where her boyfriend used to work – and the forthcoming Amazon hub to the north.
She recently started a small-batch ice cream business in town. “I don’t want to leave all this behind,” she said. “But then, I think about all the trucks coming through our neighborhood.”
She said didn’t want to see her three-year-old son, who already suffers from frequent nosebleeds, congestion and trouble breathing at night, develop more serious respiratory issues.
Jaime, the farmer across from the new Amazon warehouse, is planning to leave as well. His landlord has been fielding offers from warehouse developers – and has warned him he has two or three years left before his lease is likely to end.
“It’s a shame because the land here is really fertile,” he said. But these days the fumes and dust from the passing trucks make him wheeze after a long day out in the field. And he couldn’t afford to compete with developers to buy his own plot of land in town. “What can you do?” he said. “The warehouses are everywhere now.”
• This story was corrected on 12 December 2022. An earlier version stated that about 70% of children under 10 in San Bernardino county had been diagnosed with asthma. The correct figure is about 10%.