The bigger they come — they harder they fall. In August 2005, Wal-Mart announced that it wanted to build an enormous distribution center in Merced, California. Almost immediately a group was formed to prevent that from happening. The Merced Stop Wal-Mart Action Team (SWAT) began what is now a three and a half year campaign to do battle with Wal-Mart. “Unfortunately,” the group wrote, “the same reasons that Wal-Mart chose to locate in Merced make it wrong for our community, which has the highest rates of foreclosure and air pollution in the nation. Usually, distribution centers are built miles from residential neighborhoods.” In Merced, Wal-Mart chose to locate half a mile from hundreds of new homes. The land they want is surrounding on three sides by residential property, and a school on the fourth. According to SWAT, the project will bring many negative impacts to the community. This enormous project will consume 270 acres on the southeast side of Merced, a community of roughly 70,000 people. The Distribution Center will pave over 100 acres of prime farmland, to create a 1,200,000 s.f. building — the equivalent of six supercenters under one roof, or 24 football fields. The pavement and parking lot for the facility is 4,353,000 s.f. There is room at the site for 300 parking spaces for tractor-trailers. In one 18 hour day, a total of 450 trucks will grind in and out of the facility, plus 1,075 passenger cars per day. SWAT says the project will create severe air pollution, including diesel pollution, which causes cancer, asthma and other health problems. SWAT notes that the embattled Barstow, California proposed Wal-Mart distribution center will generate 556 tons of particulates every year from diesel trucks. The California Air Resources Board recently found that exposure to particulate (soot) causes nearly 3,000 Valley residents to die prematurely every year. “Concentrating that much pollution in the San Joaquin Valley and Southeast Merced amounts to a potential death sentence for our children and elders,” SWAT charges. Inevitably traffic accidents will increase, and pedestrian safety will deteriorate. Noise impacts from the facility include alarm systems, loudspeaker system, truck & car traffic, radios, reverse indicators (beeps), trailer droppings, etc. The lights for the facility will be placed on 40-ft poles and structured walls, making the night nearly as bright as the day, operating 24/7 for 365 days a year. The facility will require a 20,000 gallon underground storage fuel tank, plus aboveground diesel tanks, oil tanks, and waste oil tanks. The DC will store and transfer hazardous materials. “Every inch of rainfall on the site will result in 3 million gallons of runoff from the site,” SWAT says. “Despite detention pond facilities, runoff ends up in the storm sewers, groundwater and surface water.” The group warns that contaminated runoff will seep into Merced’s groundwater, a source of the city’s drinking water. The site itself is located in a FEMA Flood Hazard Zone. The city will have to deal with the DC’s waste byproducts, including 55,000 gallons of sewage per day, and significant road repair costs attributable to heavy truck traffic. Many of the County roads around the distribution center are already crumbling into chunks of asphalt. The existence of organized opposition has forced the city of Merced to proceed carefully with this project, knowing that litigation could follow their decision to approve the plan. On September 18, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Merced City Council had agreed to spend another $45,000 to study the environmental impact of turning agriculture land into a trucking facility. Wal-Mart will pay for the added cost of the study, which will delay any vote on the project until sometime in 2009. According to the newspaper, more study was needed to make the environmental study “bulletproof before its release to the public.” According to the Merced Sun-Star, “Merced has made a point to make it defensible in court, ordering a third-party to pore over it, searching for holes or weak parts that could be targeted by attorneys.” The review has now been going on for two years. So far, the city has spent nearly $450,000 on the environmental review — supposedly to be paid for in its entirety by Wal-Mart. The money also will pay for additional traffic studies and revisions to the noise and air quality analyses. SWAT says in 2006, the City of Merced ordered $114,885 in environmental studies, “but it took a delinquent payment notice and the threat of a referral to Collections to get the biggest corporation in the world to pay up.” This week, the Central Valley Business Times reports that the draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) on the proposed distribution center in Merced is finally being released to the public at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25th. Copies of the report will be available on a CD in the lobby on the first floor of the Merced Civic Center, 678 W. 18th St. A downloadable copy of the draft EIR also will be posted on the city’s website, www.cityofmerced.org under the “Public Information” listing. This CD is likely to become one of the hottest CDs in the history of Merced. The release of the DEIR begins a 60 day public review, which ends on April 27th. From there, the consultants who wrote the report will review and respond to questions raised by the DEIR. This means a city council vote is not likely until the summer. SWAT hopes to make it a very hot summer for the Merced city council. “Merced is our home,” the group has said. “We will protect it.”
The DEIR consultant told the Sun Star last Fall that it expects “an unusually large number of detailed comment letters once the draft goes public.” SWAT responded to the city’s latest increase in spending by pointing out that in 2006 the city ordered $114,885 in review work to be done, but Wal-Mart did not pay the bill until a delinquent payment notice and the threat of a referral to a collection agency was made. “If Wal-Mart already repeatedly sues cities until their tax assessment is reduced,” the group said, “doesn’t bother to pay its debts to one of the poorest cities in the U.S., and locks its janitors inside to save money, imagine if City Council lets Wal-Mart dumps its pollution on Southeast Merced.” The group is hoping that Wal-Mart will back out of its plans for Merced. “At the end of July, Wal-Mart pulled out of an 800,000 s.f. distribution center near the Port of Savannah, Georgia, citing the need to ‘streamline efficiencies’ in its operations.” SWAT says that rumors of closure have plagued Wal-Mart’s St. Landy Parish, Louisiana distribution center near Baton Rouge. “Wal-Mart wants to dump its distribution center in Merced at a location that may have made sense 10 years ago,” SWAT concludes, “but is becoming increasingly untenable even for Wal-Mart’s bottom line. That said, the distribution center has never made sense to thousands of Merced families deeply concerned about our health and quality of life.” SWAT has on its website a 14 minute video from Porterville, California, which has a distribution center near residential homes. In the video neighbors complain of the idling trucks, the dirt and diesel fume, the constant noise (“you have to sleep with the TV on”) the lights all night, and the traffic (“trucks and kids don’t mix”). Readers are urged to go to the town’s website and download a copy of the DEIR. Comments can be submitted in writing to Kim Espinosa, planning manager, City of Merced Planning and Permitting, 678 W. 18th St, Merced, Calif., 95340. Readers are urged to email comments to [email protected] , or to send a message like this: “Dear Ms. Espinosa, There is a reason why residents of communities like Merced and Barstow are fighting with everything they have to stop the huge Wal-Mart distribution centers. That’s because everything they have is on the line. The quality of life in their community is on the line. The size of these distribution center projects boggles the mind. It would be a task just to walk around the perimeter of a building the size of 24 football fields! The number one commitment that the 7 members of the city council have made to Merced residents is to “maintain a high quality of life” for your citizens. The fact is, a distribution center surrounded by low-density agricultural land and residential property are incompatible land uses. When incompatible uses are squeezed together, it creates winners and losers. In this case, the neighbors lose big time — and that’s the hallmark of bad land use planning. Wal-Mart’s truck facility is not just an unpleasant neighbor, it’s an unhealthy neighbor as well, given the air pollution this project will bring. The only reasonable way to accommodate a project like this is to size it correctly for the surrounding neighborhood, or find another location entirely. It is not Merced’s fault that Wal-Mart builds trucking warehouses larger than one million square feet. The retailer should be forced to fit into Merced, not the reverse. This is part of the company’s unsustainable footprint. And when the time comes that company decides the facility is too large or outdated, the city will be left with the largest abandoned building in your history. Before the environmental review is completed, ask your consultants to study a project half or one-quarter of the size, and ask Wal-Mart now to shrink the size and the impact of this store. But under no circumstances should a massive project of this scale be forced on unwilling residential neighbors. If you are going to trash their home values and their health, you should offer to totally abate their property taxes — for those who are unlucky enough to be unable to sell their homes at a loss and get out. To proceed with this project as proposed is reckless, and shows total disregard for your own taxpaying homeowners. Don’t make the same mistakes that Porterville made. Distribution centers and residential property just doesn’t mix. This intense use of land is incompatible with surrounding land uses, and on those grounds alone, should be rejected.” For more background on the DEIR, and comments to make, go to the SWAT website in a couple of weeks at: http://www.mercedstopwalmart.org/home.html.