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Wal-Mart critics want more time, translations to review environmental summary

A handful of residents are pushing Merced government leaders to expand the comment period about the Wal-Mart distribution center.

They'd like to have more than 60 days to comb through the 441-page environmental review and 675 pages of supporting reports. They'd like to have the summaries translated into Hmong and Spanish for non-English-speaking residents.

The small group also asked that the city host workshops to discuss what's illuminated in the report, which analyzes the effects of the distribution center in fine detail.

The requests may be seen as stall tactics by some, though the residents say it's important that everyone understand what the project means for Merced.

Wal-Mart officials have said it would employ 600 full-time workers during its first day of operation and that the figure would rise to 900 within a year.

Project critics point to the fleet of semitrucks, some 900 trips each day, as creating congestion on roads and hurting the air quality.

The report's release last week begins the journey of whether the project is approved or denied by the City Council.

Planning Manager Kim Espinosa couldn't say whether the city would heed any of the requests. She's meeting with city government leaders Friday to discuss them.

Wal-Mart spokesman Aaron Rios deferred to the city on the issues raised. "It's their document, and they control (the public comment process)," he said.

Rod Webster, a Merced resident, was among four people who spoke Monday to the City Council about the report. He followed up the next day with a letter repeating what he'd like to see done to make sure everyone has a chance to learn about the project.

It took years to write the report, but residents only have 60 days to digest it, he said. They would have to read about 20 pages each day to finish it by April 27, the end of the comment period, he added.

Webster, a once-active member of the Stop Wal-Mart Action Team who's still unsure whether the project should be approved, surveyed the neighborhoods near where the distribution center would be built a couple of years ago. He said a large percent of the residents speak Hmong and Spanish. "They'd bear the brunt of the effects," he noted.

Mayor Ellie Wooten noted that the city has already elected to go with a 60-day comment period, longer than what's legally necessary.

The city may have translators available for the public hearings, though she doesn't foresee it transcribing sections of the report into different languages.

"I don't know about that," she said.

Merced County Jobs Coalition Chairman Doug Fluetsch said that any groups supporting or opposing the project should create teams of people to analyze each of the sections.

"No one person, not even the smartest lawyer, could read it and single-handedly understand it," he said.

Fluetsch said he'd like to have public hearings, but added it'd be difficult to find a moderator or someone who could field questions because the city's not an expert on the report.

The only group familiar with it is EDAW, the firm that wrote it, he said. The comment period is the public's opportunity to ask questions about the proposed center, he said. Those questions will be answered in writing by EDAW when the final version is released.

Noah Lor, Merced's first Hmong councilman, said he wasn't sure whether it would be possible to publish sections of the report in different languages, but planned to speak with Merced Lao Family Community leaders to see if they have input or concerns that need to be addressed.

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or

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