Hazardous waste, treated human sewage and farm chemicals are part of a dumping ground culture surrounding the San Joaquin Valley, but other deadly health risks slip under the radar.
Through a legal loophole, a company with global sales of $4 billion opened its West Coast distribution center in Visalia last year without having to follow a rule that curbs air pollution, much of it generated by traffic.
Critics, who sued over it, argue traffic and diesel truck exhaust from the 500,000-square-foot distribution center will create tons of air pollution. Air pollution kills several hundred people prematurely each year in the Valley.
They say VWR International, a laboratory supply and distribution company, needs to use the cleanest trucks available or buy cleaner equipment for businesses in the area.
It's a classic case of big-city pollution being dumped into the Valley, say air-quality activists. The distribution center moved from the Bay Area to the Valley, where the air is more tainted than anyplace in the country except the South Coast Air Basin.
VWR shouldn't be allowed to leverage profits on the lungs of the people living here, says Fresno activist Kevin Hall, executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition.
"It's shocking," Hall said. "This is exploitation of the Valley's economic crisis."
Health researchers say diesel exhaust is carcinogenic. Diesel is now considered the biggest single contributor to air pollution in the Valley.
To help combat pollution from urban sprawl and traffic, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has a rule requiring new businesses to clean up or pay for cleanups in the area, as well as make a full accounting of the dirty air that will be created.
The 2005 rule forces new projects at the edges of town to pay fees for traffic and other types of pollution. The fees are used to help buy cleaner diesel engines for buses, tractors and trucks in the area.
But the air district says the rule doesn't apply in VWR's case. The company is exempt because there is no "discretionary decision" involved from the city -- such as a City Council vote on a conditional-use permit.
The VWR distribution center didn't need such a permit, Visalia officials say. The center is appropriately located in the city's industrial park that was zoned 20 years ago for this kind of use.
City attorney Alex Peltzer said the City Council voted on the zoning for that land in the 1990s. At that time, the environmental issues were debated and considered, he said. It is a common, legal practice throughout California, say many experts.
Peltzer added that objections to the VWR project are really about union issues. The Teamsters Joint Council 7 alleged union-busting activities when VWR moved to Visalia from Brisbane in the Bay Area.
"The Teamsters are trying to say that this is an environmental issue," Peltzer said. "It's really a union issue."
On Thursday, 61 employees of VWR in Visalia voted to join Teamsters Local 948. But a lawyer representing the Teamsters said there has been no change in the lawsuit the union filed against the VWR project. The lawsuit says the company should address air-quality issues.
Three public-interest groups -- the Coalition for Clean Air, Center for Environmental Health and the Association of Irritated Residents -- also are part of the suit.
A Tulare County judge dismissed it in 2011. But in September last year, the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno reinstated the case, saying the plaintiffs have the right to make sure the city follows environmental law. It is supposed to come back before the court in Tulare County.
The plaintiffs also filed a federal lawsuit in Fresno, citing the U.S. Clean Air Act. A federal judge this month denied VWR's motion to dismiss the case. It is on hold until the Tulare County court rules.
There is good reason not to dismiss the case, according to the ruling.
"Being compelled to breathe air less pure than that which otherwise would be mandated by the (Clean Air Act) is a valid injury," Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill wrote.
Oakland attorney Richard Drury, representing the plaintiffs, said the public has a right to know how much pollution this new distribution center will create. That information is not available now, he said.
"We tried to stop the center from opening this year, but we were unsuccessful," Drury said. "But it's not too late to do the right thing, follow the air district's rule and account for all the pollution."
Traffic, dirty air
Diesel trucks are the biggest dirty-air villain in the Valley and California. For a key ozone chemical called oxides of nitrogen, the trucks dwarf cars, trains, power plants, oilfield production and any other single source in the Valley.
Diesel trucks also are the biggest player in the business of moving goods here. Recent studies show they move more than 90% of the half billion tons of goods transported each year in the Valley, including hauling products to and from large distribution centers.
In the last five years, distribution centers have blossomed in Stockton, Turlock, Fresno, Porterville, Shafter and other Valley cities.
In the northwest Valley, Amazon is preparing to build distribution centers at Patterson and Tracy. The Seattle company decided to build centers here after agreeing in 2011 to start collecting state and local sales taxes on goods purchased by California shoppers.
To the south, IKEA, the home furnishings giant, set up shop many years ago next to Interstate 5 at the Grapevine. Wal-Mart plans a distribution center in Merced. The new VWR center in Visalia opened last year.
"Land is still cheap here," said Seyed Sadredin, executive director of the Valley air district. "Distribution centers can locate close to transportation corridors."
The air district's innovative rule for urban sprawl was pointed at all kinds of businesses, shopping centers and residential developments. Distribution centers are clearly among them. Since 2007, the rule has been triggered for 20 distribution center projects.
Here's how it works:
District analysts figure how much pollution each new housing development or business would normally create, based on construction and traffic. According to the rule, the new project must must reduce 50% of the estimated pollution.
To help meet the threshold, several new distribution centers used the most air-friendly construction practices possible. That included hiring building contractors whose vehicles and equipment run 20% cleaner than the state average.
But if the air district's threshold can't be met, the owner must pay a fee -- about $9,000 per ton of pollution above the threshold.
The fee has raised $6 million from the distribution centers. The money is used in many kinds of pollution reduction, such as helping farmers buy better diesel engines for water pumps or tractors.
The expected pollution reduction over the next several years is nearly 2,000 tons, prompting Sadredin to call it a success.
He added that the VWR distribution center in Visalia had been the only large center to use the loophole in the rule.
But this year, Fry's Electronics will open a 175,000-square-foot warehouse in Hanford where it will send returned merchandise from its 16 retail locations in California. The district said it appears the rule would not apply to Fry's, either.
The VWR Visalia distribution center is the largest in the company's worldwide network -- which spans more than 30 countries in Europe, Asia, North and South America.
The company estimates the cost of the Visalia project at nearly $40 million. It's an investment creating positive economic ripples, especially in Visalia.
The center started taking in shipments last June, and its staff is more than 90, VWR reported.
From the Visalia site, the company can reach more customers with next-day delivery than it did before.
In Visalia's industrial park, distribution centers can quickly send shipments to the city airport, use rail or state highways -- 99 or 198.
Thousands of people work at the industrial park, which includes other distribution centers such as JoAnn Fabric and VF Industries, distributing sports wear.
In a county with an unemployment rate bouncing between 14% and 15% -- the state and national rates are below 10% -- the industrial park is an important part of the region's growth.
"Even in the good times, Tulare County has struggled with unemployment," said Visalia assistant city manager Mike Olmos. "There are jobs here at the industrial park for people throughout this area."
But any large project with the potential to add a lot of air pollution should undergo the air district's rule, activists say. It means more than extra money from pollution fees.
The environmental analysis tells the air district how much pollution is being added to the air as cities expand. It is information the district needs to devise new ways to reduce pollution and achieve stringent air quality standards.
But that advantage was lost in the case of the VWR distribution center, activists say.
In the absence of a pollution analysis, experts hired by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit estimate the pollution, saying there would be at least 1,780 vehicle trips per day and enough ozone-making gases to qualify as a major pollution source.
That's wildly out of kilter compared to VWR's numbers. The company says there will be 32 to 42 truck trips per day, adding that carriers like United Parcel Service are hired to do the hauling.
"Sustainability is important to VWR -- it is good for our company and good for the community," said spokeswoman Valerie Collado in an email.
But the company should not have been allowed into Visalia based on a general environmental review that was done in the 1990s, activists say. No matter what VWR says, there is no official environmental statement of how much pollution is expected from this center.
Says activist Hall: "Doing environmental review this way is like running your business on fax machines and land lines."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6316, email@example.com or @markgrossi on Twitter. Read his Earth Log blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/ earth-log.