Ecommerce fulfillment centers increasing freight pollution, congestion in rural towns

By Chet Edelman

As of 2018, about 5 percent of total retail sales in the United States occurred through online shopping. For the upcoming holiday season that share is temporarily expected to jump to 16.7 percent. In order to keep up with ever-increasing demand, ecommerce companies such as Amazon are building sprawling new fulfillment centers on the outer edges of major U.S. metro areas to aid in their logistical operations. While these warehouses can provide a windfall in economic development for the rural towns where they are being constructed, a recent article from Curbed found that, increasingly, communities are finding these facilities are more trouble than they’re worth. Specifically, the jobs and tax revenue being generated don’t outweigh negative impacts caused by freight pollution and traffic congestion.

Typically, ecommerce companies place fulfillment centers on the fringes of major metropolitan areas due to cheaper land, less space constraints, and a strategic location next to major highways. For rural communities, a fulfillment center is often seen as a boon for local economic development. A warehouse can create thousands of jobs and generate additional tax revenues for local governments. However, even in the face of such benefits, communities are beginning to view this type of economic development as an insufficient justification for worsening health and traffic conditions.

In Bloomington, CA, an unincorporated community located on the urban fringe of the Los Angeles Metro area, residents are staging protests over the increase in pollution and traffic congestion caused by additional freight traffic.  Over the last decade the community has seen four warehouses constructed within its six square mile boundary and is slated to add two more warehouses—334,000 and 680,000 square feet in size—in the coming years. Both of the new facilities will be placed only a couple hundred feet away from schools, potentially exposing children to dangerously high levels of pollution and particulate matter. Furthermore, the area’s road infrastructure currently does not have the capacity to accommodate the multitude of new freight trips expected to be generated from the construction of new facilities.

Bloomington is by no means the only rural community where the construction of fulfillment warehouses is facing heated opposition. In the New Jersey town of Robinsville, a new Amazon fulfillment center caused such severe freight traffic issues that the town’s mayor threatened to shut down warehouse operations. Further south in rural Burlington County, NJ, residents are fighting to prevent several new warehouses from being constructed despite the allure of new, well-paying jobs.

Despite the backlash these new warehouse spaces are receiving, the popularity of ecommerce continues to expand at a blistering pace. Ecommerce companies will continue to need space to ensure their logistical operations can run with increasing efficiency. For the vast majority of Americans who don’t live in proximity to these warehouses, the issue of acute air pollution and traffic congestion is out of sight and out of mind. However, for those individuals living in communities looking for jobs and with the right geographic profile to fit ecommerce needs, the warehouses can be a mixed bag. And some communities are wondering if an ecommerce distribution center will bring enough benefits to offset the negatives.

Chet Edelman is a Project Assistant at SSTI.