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Amazon’s airport ambitions might be squashed by a tiny group of activists

A group of environmental and labor activists in Southern California are taking on Amazon and the U.S. government, in hopes of stopping a new airport terminal that’s expected to be used as a massive Amazon fulfillment center that could make air quality in the area even worse.

The groups filed a petition for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a challenge of an environmental assessment by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that would make way for a new cargo terminal at the San Bernardino airport. This terminal is suspected to be under construction specifically as a shipping and fulfillment center for Amazon, according to the LA Times.

The petition for review, obtained by Digital Trends, said the FAA’s orders were “arbitrary and capricious.” The petition is being filed by the environmental legal group Earthjustice on behalf of the local Teamsters union in Southern California, as well as the Sierra Club and the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, who said their goal is to completely halt the construction of the new terminal so that a “robust” environmental review can be done.

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According to the American Lung Association, San Bernardino County already has some of the worst air quality in the country. Earthjustice and the petition filers are saying that a functioning airport terminal like the one currently proposed would involved an estimated 7,516 truck trips annually, and pump 355 tons of air pollution into the community.

“They’re going to dump literally a ton of pollution in this area, that’s already one of the most ozone polluted areas in the country,” said Adrian Martinez, a staff attorney for Earthjustice’s Right to Zero campaign, to Digital Trends before the filing. “They’re saying it’s not going to have an impact when we all know it will. It’s one of these things that defies logic and science.”

“The FAA has chosen to ignore the dirty impacts this new airport terminal will create for us,” said Anthony Victoria-Mindence, spokesperson for the Center for Community Action & Environmental Justice in a statement to Digital Trends. “Developers and corporations should be required to meet stringent standards if they’re trying to build in a community suffering from the nation’s worst air quality, not given free rein to deplete our quality of life in San Bernardino.”

Amazon’s big pollution problem

This filing comes as Amazon pledged in September to go carbon neutral after pressure from an employee-led movement within its own company. At present, Amazon has admitted that it produces 44.4 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, the same amount as Norway or Hong Kong. According to Greenpeace, Amazon’s growth has outpaced its renewable energy investment in certain sectors. Features like Prime Shipping mean that packages are not consolidated, which can lead to further waste, according to Buzzfeed. At present, Greenpeace said, Amazon’s climate pledge does not cover its supply chain emissions.

“Aircraft is one of the sources of pollution that we have a hard time controlling,” Martinez said. “We’re hearing there’s a lot of interest in expanding air freight and using air freights to ship products around the country, and that has an immense impact on greenhouse gases and localized health.”

The region around the airport, known as the Inland Empire, is a huge logistics and shipping hub for the U.S.. There are more Amazon warehouses there than anywhere else in the country. “It’s the biggest game in town,” said Mario Vasquez, Communications Coordinator for the local Teamsters 1932 union. “The Inland Empire is the shopping cart of America. The consumer products all around you at one point passed through the supply chain that’s been built out here.”

Vasquez said the labor group were joining up with the environmental groups because the issue is so multifaceted. “Our lived experience is so shaped by warehouse and logistics developments in our region,” he told DT. “the residents here don’t need a study to tell them what they already experience every day — that the air quality is absolutely terrible, and adding more emissions to the region without proper mitigation is an injustice to them.”

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Findings disputed

When the FAA completed its assessment for the Eastgate Air Cargo Facility at the San Bernardino Airport in December 2019, it issued a “Finding of No Significance,” meaning that the construction and operation of the airport terminal would have no significant consequences on the environment in the region, and construction could go forward.

The notice of the FAA’s assessment, sent from the FAA to the San Bernardino Airport’s executive director and provided to Digital Trends, reads as follows: “The proposed action is consistent with existing environmental policies and objectives as set forth in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 in that it will not significantly affect the quality of the human environment.”

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The groups filing this petition say none of that is true. “This project [the airport terminal] has a lot of flaws, but most of all, it’s going to dump a lot of air pollution into one of the worst and already most polluted regions in the country,” said Martinez. “We’re saying the FAA violated environmental laws by failing to really look at the impact this proposed cargo project could have.”

A spokesperson for the FAA told Digital Trends that it doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the filing. We will update this story when we hear back.

Earthjustice and the filing groups point to the current high rate of pollution in the area as evidence of the environmental impact that the airport already has.

The groups are asking for what they call “real and rigorous” analysis of the airport project, and called the current analysis “paltry.”

“There was a real desire to ram this project through,” said Martinez, adding that this has been a trend. “This is an administration that’s taken short shrift of environmental protection, and this is another example where they’re trying to push a project through without careful consideration. The consequences of this will be felt in the lungs of people in San Bernardino.”

Maya Shwayder
I'm a multimedia journalist currently based in New England. I previously worked for DW News/Deutsche Welle as an anchor and…
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