This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Stephanie Joseph loves her dream home, a colonial-style home in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. She and her husband stayed on a budget, paid off student loans and made sacrifices so their family could live in the peace and quiet of Cornwall, a quiet town of just under 13,000 people in the Catskills.
The area is lush and green and dotted with American beech and red maple trees. Josef often sees hawks, foxes and deer as well as woodpeckers near her home. State parks and a wetlands sanctuary are nearby.
Then came news in 2022 that land next to Joseph’s home would become a mega-warehouse — just 50 feet from her front door.
Before she bought the house, Joseph was told the property next door was owned by the state, allaying her fears about another piece of land so close to hers. However, she later discovered that it was privately owned. The proposed mega warehouse – called the Treetop Warehouse Project – will more than 1.7 million square feet spread over five buildings.
“Our first thought was, oh my god, we’re going to have to move,” Joseph said. “And we just lost all the money we put into this house, because who’s going to want to live next to a warehouse?”
A new report by the Environmental Defense Fund and ElectrifyNY shows that Stephanie is not alone. Nearly one in four New York state residents live within half a mile of a mega-warehouse — the sprawling complexes used for everything from e-commerce to aircraft manufacturing to farm equipment distribution.
These warehouses can bring all kinds of disruption of daily lifemore noise, more light, and most importantly: diesel pollution from truck exhaust.
“The main reason why this is a particularly worrying theory is that it produces a large number of very small particles,” according to Dr. Christopher Carlsten, an expert in occupational and environmental lung disease at the University of British Columbia. “And those particles are problematic because they are known to go deep into the lungs.”
When those particles burrow into the lungs, they can wreak all kinds of havoc. Previous EDF research found that diesel pollution contributes almost 21,000 childhood asthma diagnoses in the New York City metropolitan area each year.
“The concern is that research over decades has shown that virtually every part of the body is affected,” Carlsten said.
Another concern is where that pollution is usually located. The report found that black, Hispanic, and low-income populations live near warehouses at rates that are more than 59 percent, 48 percent, and 42 percent higher, respectively, than would be expected based on statewide statistics.
For the more than 230,000 residents of the South Bronx who live within half a mile of a warehouse, these statistics echo their everyday lives.
Arif Ullah, executive director of South Bronx Unite, says the problem is historic and dates back to redlining that initially zoned the area for highways and industry.
“What we’re seeing now is linked to the legacy of redlining, where certain communities have been marginalized and just disinvested in them,” Ullah said.
Proximity to this type of pollution not only affects the respiratory system, but can affect other aspects of a person’s health.
Ullah emphasizes that those broad health effects can add up over a lifetime.
“Exposure to air pollution affects them at every point in a person’s life in a very detrimental way and what it has done for the South Bronx and other communities like ours has reduced the quality of life,” he said. “It has reduced our ability to thrive.”
Back in Cornwall, Joseph fought the mega-warehouse with her neighbors. They formed a group called No warehouses in the woods to fight against what they see as an unnecessary burden on society. She is concerned not only for her own family, but for all members of the surrounding communities.
“You look at the studies and you realize, the closer they live to a warehouse, especially a mega warehouse, the more dangerous the side effects are for them,” Joseph said. “And that’s why a lot of families are trying to move away from places that are overrun with these warehouses and we thought we’re doing that.”
“Unfortunately,” she added, “that doesn’t seem to be the case.”