Early next week, residents in Merced, California are likely to be heading to court to try and stop a huge Wal-Mart distribution center. Wal-Mart distribution centers are too large to avoid opposition. In August 2005, Wal-Mart announced that it wanted to build an enormous distribution center in Merced. Almost immediately a group was formed to prevent that from happening. The Merced Stop Wal-Mart Action Team (SWAT) began what is now a four 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 surrounded 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. The California Air Resources Board has determined 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 agreed to pay for the added cost of the study. 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 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.” On February 23, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that the draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) on the proposed distribution center in Merced was released to the public. The release of the DEIR began a 60 day public review, which ended on April 27th. This week, the public hearings on the Wal-Mart plan finally began. Roughly 100 opponents came to the first hearing. Among the groups testifying against the plan was the Merced/Mariposa County Asthma Coalition. “Diesel pollution increases the risk of hospitalization for children with asthma…living and attending school near high-traffic roads has been associated with asthma hospitalizations, respiratory symptoms and compromised lung function in children,” the Coalition said. There is another public hearing Saturday, September 26th, and the City Council is likely to vote on the project on September 28th. Critics of the project warn that asthma affects 51,000 Merced County residents — including 17,000 children – nearly 50% above the state average. A spokesman for the Merced Alliance for Responsible Growth testified at the September 21st hearing that the environmental report will end up in court because “adverse impacts” to the environment were not addressed.
SWAT said last winter that it was hoping that Wal-Mart would back out of its plans for Merced. Last summer, 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 email Merced Mayor Ellie Wooten and members of the City Council at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Wooten and Council Members, 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 and health of your community is at stake. 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. CalTrans and the Valley Air District have warned that the traffic studies and Health Risk Assessment were performed incompetently and should be re-done. 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 the company decides the facility is too large or outdated, the city will be left with the largest abandoned building in your history. Ask Wal-Mart and 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. 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 Merced Wal-Mart project and the lastest hearings, go to the SWAT website at: http://www.mercedstopwalmart.org/home.html