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Oakland Environmental Group Sues City Over Rubber-Stamp Approvals of Indoor Pot Farms

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Two semi trucks tow large diesel generators away from Oakland warehouse.
Diesel generators were removed from one of two East Oakland buildings owned by Denver-based cannabis landlord Green Sage on Sept. 1, 2022. As many as a dozen of the diesel-powered machines had been used in place of normal grid power to provide electricity to pot-growing operations at the Green Sage complex.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

An Oakland environmental justice group has filed suit against the city for allegedly issuing rubber-stamp approvals for indoor cannabis growing operations without conducting state-mandated reviews of their potential for polluting air and water and harming human health.

In a complaint filed October 21 in Alameda County Superior Court, the Environmental Democracy Project charges the city with having exempted more than 200 indoor pot grows from the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, without any analysis of their effects.

The indoor growing operations are generally located in Oakland's "Green Zone," which the city designated several years ago for industrial cannabis operations. In East Oakland, the zone is adjacent to communities of color that experience high rates of poverty and have long suffered from excessive levels of air pollution and other toxic exposures.

"Approving hundreds of cannabis cultivation facilities without any environmental review is yet another example of the city’s practice of targeting East Oakland for projects that wealthier Oakland neighborhoods do not want," the suit says.

The complaint says the city has failed to carry out the state-mandated CEQA reviews despite the known environmental impacts of indoor cannabis cultivation. Those impacts include air pollution, the generation of hazardous waste, and the need for huge amounts of water and electricity.

The Oakland City Attorney's Office said it had no comment on the suit.

Tanya Boyce, executive director of the Environmental Democracy Project, said that in addition to violating state law, the granting of blanket environmental exemptions runs counter to Oakland's Equitable Climate Action Plan, adopted in July 2020.

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The plan outlines the health and other impacts suffered by what the city terms "frontline communities" — those that have borne the brunt of past policies and are likely to face the worst consequences of the climate crisis — and prescribes dozens of actions the city will take in response.

The plan "does a great job of documenting the harms that have been done to communities of color in Oakland over the years," Boyce said. She points out that among the steps the city pledges to take in the future are changes in the planning and permitting process to help ensure that those harms don't continue.

"What we're saying is that the unregulated, un-CEQA-reviewed approvals of large-scale indoor cannabis grows is the total opposite of everything that they're saying, both on greenhouse gas reduction goals and for the health of the community," Boyce said.

"What we're doing is calling out the hypocrisy and asking that the city's actions actually line up with the beautiful plans that we make," she added.

The lawsuit comes weeks after the Environmental Democracy Project and residents of a historic live/work warehouse on San Leandro Street finally prevailed in a long struggle to force a property owner to remove a set of massive diesel generators that had been installed without permits to power cannabis growing operations. The Denver-based owner, called Green Sage, subsequently lost the property in a foreclosure sale, and cannabis operations have been shut down until PG&E and a new owner complete electrical upgrades.

The new EDP complaint outlines the city's protocol for granting environmental approvals to cannabis operators. The process requires prospective dispensaries, delivery services, cultivators and others to file simple CEQA checklists describing their proposed sites and the scale of their operations.

Among the questions the checklist asks is, "Have you incorporated any measures into your project to mitigate or reduce potential environmental impacts?"

Typical answers include operators saying they'll sign up for electricity from renewable sources — as the city requires — and promises to use efficient light fixtures. In return for pledges like that, the Environmental Democracy Project lawsuit says, the city grants a virtually automatic notice that indoor grows won't be using fossil fuels and are exempt from environmental review.

As further grounds for approval without review, the city indicates in its notices that indoor cultivation is "categorically exempt" when it involves "existing facilities" — even when a garage or other indoor facility is being converted into energy-intensive growing space. Projects are also exempt, the city notices say, when projects are in line with existing city zoning and ordinances.

The lawsuit claims that each of the city's grounds for exemption violates CEQA requirements. It notes that the law permits only minor alterations to a facility without triggering an environmental review and argues that "the conversion of storage warehouses, factories, auto shops, and other existing structures into state-of-the-art 'grow rooms' ... are in fact wholly new uses — not minor modifications to an existing use."

The converted properties may require major renovations and the installation of specialized equipment including high-intensity lighting, carbon dioxide generation, ventilation, irrigation, climate control, diesel truck trips and generators "requiring massive amounts of electricity, water, and alterations to the site."

The EDP complaint calls the city's requirement that indoor growers sign up for a renewable power supply "meaningless greenwashing." That charge is based in part on studies that show that California lacks enough renewable electricity — power generally coming mostly from solar or wind farms — to run the indoor cannabis grows in the state.

The complaint cites the recent example of the San Leandro Street facility where the property owners and cannabis operators had installed as many as a dozen huge, unpermitted diesel generators because existing conventional power supplies could deliver only a small fraction of the power needed for indoor pot cultivation.

One of the growers at that facility promised to use “high energy efficiency bulbs, low flow toilets and water systems, and a strict recycling program ... to mitigate our environmental impacts," the complaint says. But following city approval, the growers "operated massive diesel-fired generators 24 hours a day for two years because the facility lacked power supply from the grid — yet another example of the city’s pattern and practice of violating CEQA at the expense of the overburdened communities of color in which these facilities are located."

The suit asks Alameda County Superior Court to block CEQA exemptions that were granted to two other East Oakland indoor growing facilities, one on Kevin Court near the Oakland Coliseum, the second on Hegenberger Place near the Brookfield Village neighborhood. The complaint also seeks a finding that the city is in violation of CEQA and to block it from approving any new indoor grows until it complies with the law. The first hearing in the case is set for November 21.

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