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Environmental Groups Line Up Behind Residents to Try to Shut Down Diesel Generators at Oakland Cannabis Facility

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white buildings stained blackish with diesel exhaust loom against a blue sky as cube-shaped generators sit at ground level
Diesel generators and cooling equipment operating outside the Green Sage building at 5601 San Leandro St. in Oakland on Feb. 22, 2022. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

The owners of a massive East Oakland cannabis facility are facing the latest in a series of enforcement actions intended to halt the use of pollution-spewing diesel generators to provide power to the complex.

Residents in one of the buildings owned by Denver-based Green Sage teamed with a pair of Oakland environmental groups to use Proposition 65, the state's landmark toxics enforcement law, to get the semi-trailer-sized generators shut down.

The move comes nearly two years after Green Sage began relying on diesel generators to power its two big San Leandro Street buildings — and after a long series of thus far unsuccessful attempts by city agencies and regional air regulators to stop the firm's unpermitted use of the heavily polluting machines.

The Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health and the recently formed Environmental Democracy Project, along with residents of a building where the generators began running in July 2020, filed a Proposition 65 notice of violation on Monday against Denver-based cannabis landlord Green Sage.

The notice alleges the company has failed to provide Prop. 65 warnings about the health dangers, including cancer, posed by exposure to diesel exhaust. Green Sage has operated as many as nine of the unpermitted semi-trailer-sized generators around the clock outside its San Leandro Street buildings.

"Just to the east of the generators, where the wind carries the pollution, is a very dense residential neighborhood, a community of color," said Lucas Williams, an attorney representing the environmental groups and building residents. "There's schools, playgrounds, and people live there. So not surprisingly the elevated cancer risk is very significant."

The notice, accompanied by a confidential scientific report on the generators' effects on residents' health to the California attorney general's office, is the first step in a process that could lead to state enforcement action or a private lawsuit.

If found in violation of the toxics law, Green Sage could face retroactive penalties of as much as $2,500 a day. That could mean a total penalty of nearly $2 million if assessed back to July 2020, when the first generator was deployed at the Green Sage properties.

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The generators have prompted the city of Oakland to issue at least three separate notices of violation over the past year. A notice sent to Green Sage in early April warned the company it must halt use of the diesel engines.

Following up on public complaints last September, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued a notice of violation against Green Sage in February and is currently seeking an order to have the generators shut down.

The generators continue to run as Green Sage appeals the city order and seeks to delay the air district's enforcement action. The company has said the generators are necessary because electricity demands at its facilities have exceeded PG&E's local power capacity.

Alistair Monroe, a resident of one of the Green Sage-owned buildings, The Cannery, said that given the city's failure to get the generators shut down, filing the Proposition 65 notice is "the only way to put our foot down and say enough is enough."

"I feel it's important we protect the residents and the community at large," Monroe said in an interview. "There's no governing body from City Hall or from the city that is taking drastic measures to do so."

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Environmental Democracy Project Executive Director Tanya Boyce, who worked as a planner and redevelopment analyst for the city of Oakland earlier in her career, also faults what she calls the city's "complete, total lapse" in enforcing regulations in the Green Sage case.

"The records indicate that they have given warnings and then extended warnings and extended warnings and extended warnings when they know that there are life safety situations here," Boyce said.

"I really am concerned as an ex-city employee about the type of behavior and the actual lack of taking the duties of enforcement and regulation seriously," she said. "I know from personal experience that ... East Oakland gets under-regulated based on the fact that they don't think anybody out here is going to speak up."

Kaya Allan Sugerman, who directs public-interest litigation for the Center for Environmental Health, said neighborhoods downwind of Green Sage already are heavily burdened by diesel engine pollution from nearby freeways, industry and other sources. She said Green Sage's contribution to the air quality problem is "one huge exposure on top of a mountain" of other hazards.

"This industry moving into East Oakland from outside and being allowed to pollute this community without repercussions is environmental racism in action," Sugerman said.

A recent report filed as part of Oakland's 2045 general plan update ranked the neighborhoods adjacent to the Green Sage facilities as among the city's most polluted.

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