This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Stephanie Joseph loves her dream home, a colonial-style house in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. She and her husband stayed within a budget, paid off student loans, and made sacrifices all so that their family could live in the peace and quiet of Cornwall, a placid town of just under 13,000 people situated in the Catskills. 

The area is lush and green and dotted with American beech and red maple trees. Joseph regularly sees hawks, foxes, and deer, as well as woodpeckers near her house. State parks and a wetlands sanctuary are nearby.

Then came the news in 2022 that land next to Joseph’s home was slated to become a mega-warehouse — just 50 feet from her front door. 

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Before she purchased the house, Joseph was told the property next door was owned by the state, relieving her fears about another piece of land so close to hers. Later, however, she discovered that it was privately owned. The proposed mega-warehouse — dubbed the Treetop Warehouse Project — will be more than 1.7 million square feet spread out over five buildings. 

“Our first thought was, oh, my God, we’re going to have to move,” said Joseph. “And we just lost all the money that we put into this house, because who’s gonna want to live next to a warehouse?”

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A new report by the Environmental Defense Fund and ElectrifyNY shows that Stephanie is not alone. Nearly 1 in 4 New York State residents live within a half mile of a mega-warehouse — the sprawling complexes used for everything from e-commerce to plane manufacturing to farm equipment distribution. 

These warehouses can bring all sorts of disruption to daily life, more noise, more light, and most importantly: diesel pollution from truck exhaust. 

“The main reason it’s a particularly concerning 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 get deep into the lungs.” 

When those particles burrow into the lungs, they can cause all sorts of havoc. Past EDF research has found that diesel pollution contributes to nearly 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,” said Carlsten. 

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 that live half a mile from a warehouse, these statistics echo their everyday lives.

Arif Ullah, executive director of South Bronx Unite, says that the problem is historic and dates back to redlining which initially zoned the area for highways and industry. 

“What we’re seeing right now is linked with the legacy of redlining, where certain communities were marginalized and just disinvested in,” said Ullah. 

Proximity to this type of pollution not only impacts the respiratory system, but can affect other aspects of a person’s health.

 “A lot of research has been done on other impacts of air pollution to help in ranging from infant mortality, to maternal health, to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and even dementia,” said Ullah. 

Ullah stresses that those wide-ranging health effects can add up over a lifetime. 

“At every point in a person’s life, exposure to air pollution is impacting them in a very detrimental way and what that has done for the South Bronx and other communities like ours is diminished the quality of life,” he said. “It’s diminished our ability to thrive.”

Back in Cornwall, Joseph has been fighting the mega-warehouse alongside her neighbors. They’ve formed a group called No Warehouses in the Woods to fight against what they see as an unnecessary burden on the community. She’s 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 that they live to a warehouse, especially a mega-warehouse, the more dangerous the side effects are for them,” said Joseph. “And that’s why a lot of families try to move away from places that are crowded with these warehouses and we thought we were doing that.”

“Unfortunately,” she added, “that doesn’t seem to be the case.”