By Tom Grave
After a three-year legal battle, Walmart can now proceed with building a 1.1 million square foot distribution center on 230 acres within the city of Merced. This massive project will bring with it all of the negative effects identified in the environmental impact report and repeatedly noted by citizens during numerous hearings before the City Council.
The proposed distribution center will operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with 600 or more diesel truck trips per day. Walmart stores currently operating in the central California region and those planned for the future would be supplied with retail merchandise by trucks based at the distribution center.
The legal challenge to Walmart and the City of Merced rested on provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). This law requires that the public be informed of the impacts of projects like Walmart and that the impacts be minimized through “mitigations.” The public is also to be provided the opportunity to comment during hearings held by the decision-making body, in this case the City Council.
A local citizens’ group, the Merced Alliance for Responsible Growth (MARG), filed suit against Walmart, alleging that such impacts as air pollution and traffic congestion were not properly analyzed and that significant information was withheld from public review. At the time, the MARG was a grassroots organization consisting of a number of community groups, representing hundreds of individuals.
Throughout, supporters of the Walmart project tried to discredit the MARG, saying it was a front for interests outside Merced. In fact, the only outside force at play was legal support, which is usually the case in David versus Goliath battles like this one. After all, who in Merced would have the money to take on Walmart, one of the largest corporations in the world?
The City of Merced originally approved the distribution center on Sept. 28, 2009, with property tax revenue and jobs the major features in the project’s favor. Against the backdrop of high unemployment and a depressed economy, the promise of 1,200 jobs at an “average” pay rate of $14.50 per hour was hard to resist.
However, to this day, Walmart has not actually promised any particular number of jobs nor given the city a pay scale showing wages of different positions, nor set forth a structure for employee benefits. We don’t even know how many hours the average employee is likely to work. Judging from Walmart’s record, full-time employment is likely to be well below 40 hours per week.
We do know that modern-day distribution centers generally are highly mechanized, with computers and conveyor belts doing the work. It is highly unlikely that even at full capacity the Merced facility would provide close to 1,200 jobs.
So, in exchange for the property taxes Walmart will pay the city and the jobs that might be provided, what are the people of Merced going to sacrifice? The answer to this question is the substance of the MARG’s petition to the Superior Court, submitted in February 2010. It turns out that our quality of life, including our health, will suffer. At the top of the list is air pollution. The Merced air already ranks with the dirtiest in the nation. Why would we be willing to make it worse by recruiting a dirty industry to set up shop here? Would young families want to settle here given the clear health hazard of polluted air? Will our new University of California in Merced be able to attract the best students and the best professors?
Other quality-of-life issues identified by the MARG included traffic congestion, noise, artificial light, and threats to storm-water drainage and runoff patterns. We are losing 230 acres of mostly prime farmland, now producing almonds and alfalfa, and we are gaining a Walmart monster. Is this progress for our Valley?
Tom Grave is co-chair of the Merced Alliance for Responsible Growth. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.